The American artist John Singer Sargent was sometimes accused of painting no more than the outside appearances of people. His portraits of children, in particular, some critics said, succeeded because "in childhood, character scarcely exists, because the charm and even the individuality of the child are essentially superficial...."
One admirer of his work, however, disagreed. In an article in Harper's Weekly in 1891, Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer said that she felt "that his children's faces were not lacking in character, but were especially remarkable because childish character is so subtly revealed...."
Sargent sometimes agreed with his critics, maintaining that, after all, he could paint only what his eyes saw. But on this occasion he wrote to Rensselaer to thank her for her praise because "very few writers give me credit for insides, so to speak."
His society portraits (in the tradition of Van Dyck and Gainsborough) showed that he knew just how to invest his aristocratic and nouveau riche sitters with a classy, elegant air that expressed their self-importance. At the same time – and his sitters may not have quite realized this – there was a deft undercurrent of caricature, or a dig at the pretensions of these powerful personalities.
When he portrayed children, Sargent seems to have recognized that they simply didn't have the pretensions of their parents and would much rather be out playing on the lawn. He quite evidently sympathized with their unwillingly contained energies. He also understood childish shyness.
This delightful "Portrait of a Child," included in a Nov. 28 sale at Bonhams, New York, vividly epitomizes the paradox of Sargent. Painted with brilliance, it can be relished for its painterly dexterity. At the same time, it betrays an astonishing comprehension of the small, reluctant sitter's inner life, distracted by the boredom of having to be painted, and retreating into an introspective world of her own.