A mother's tough and tender love

The two people in this powerful image of maternal and filial closeness confront the viewer. They gaze intently, without evasion, at us. Their features, strongly lit, are in vivid contrast to a deliberately intense background of darkness.

The painter, John Singer Sargent, has allowed nothing to distract from what matters most. Faces, hands, stance - and costume - say everything. They are full of painterly life.

The mother stands as motionless as a rock. Prominent in the elite society of Worcester, Mass., where her husband had served as mayor, she looks the part: formidable in costume and expression. Hers is a face to be reckoned with - you can almost hear how authoritatively she would speak to you. Yet her expression, for all its overt certainty, also hints at depths of motherly kindness.

Her hand-on-hip adds to her air of assurance. Her other hand, also wonderfully observed by the artist, is both firm and soft as it arches over her 8-year-old son's shoulder and takes his hand between her thumb and forefinger. He is simultaneously controlled and loved by it.

Against her stillness, her son appears energetic and restless. He is brilliantly portrayed as a mixture of outward confidence and inward reticence, of eagerness and restraint. Symbolically, Sargent shows him wanting to wriggle free from the maternal "apron strings" (though it is hard to imagine this somewhat patrician matron in an apron!), but at the same time aware of his need for parental protection.

He is, in one way, just a typical boy of his time and class. His loose-fitting sailor suit was virtually the universal costume of well-dressed boys who were no longer infants but still some years from adolescence. His wide-brimmed hat was part of this "uniform." Tilted back, it circles his head, giving him a prominence to balance his mother's. Clearly, he - her only son - is as important to her as she is to him.

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