Sargent’s commission to paint seven-year-old Robert de Cévrieux came soon after the artist’s strong showing at the 1879 Salon, the important state-sponsored exhibition in Paris. There, he had shown to great acclaim a portrait of his teacher, the artist Carolus-Duran (1879, Sterling and...
Sargent’s commission to paint seven-year-old Robert de Cévrieux came soon after the artist’s strong showing at the 1879 Salon, the important state-sponsored exhibition in Paris. There, he had shown to great acclaim a portrait of his teacher, the artist Carolus-Duran (1879, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts). Sargent’s father, Dr. Fitzwilliam Sargent, reported proudly in a personal letter to his brother that six commissions for portraits followed from the exhibition of Carolus-Duran, including this charming image of a little boy and his dog. Very little is known of the sitter, save his name, his age, and the time the portrait was painted, and that he sold the painting to the New York gallery Knoedler & Co. in 1921, from whence it made its way to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Nevertheless, the portrait reveals a good deal about Sargent’s techniques and interests at this early point in his career, when his Salon works had just begun to gain him recognition. Of Sargent’s commissions from that period, one-third were for portraits of children, a type of likeness that had become increasingly fashionable. Commissioning a child’s portrait allowed patrons to dodge any accusations of vanity that requesting portraits of themselves might encourage, and as childhood came to be recognized as a distinct and special phase of life, photographic and painted images of children grew more appealing to parents. Artists likely encouraged this trend, for portraits were the best source of income for artists next to teaching. Paying artistic attention to the child—now rising in cultural and economic significance—made good business sense. Cévrieux, who holds his squirming pet dog to one side, wears a stylish skirted suit (suggesting his young age, as he is “unbreeched” or not yet wearing trousers); his matching jacket is trimmed with buttons, and a large red bow is tied around his collar. The small, wriggling dog he grasps implies the pent-up energy of both while also encouraging empathy in the viewer. Standing on an Oriental rug, in front of a backdrop or curtain (a common studio prop), Robert, though well-behaved, radiates youth and energy, characteristics enhanced by Sargent’s strong brushwork. The composition is drawn from the work of Carolus-Duran, who had shown pictures of his own children holding their pets at the 1874 and 1875 Salon exhibitions. Sargent left Carolus-Duran’s formal instruction in 1879, but his artistic influence remained important. Sargent’s technique—though similar to Carolus-Duran’s—is more fluid, his depiction of the child more vital and individualized. Robert leans to the left in order to support his pet; through this diagonal and its bodily significance, he is endowed with a sense of motion, or potential motion. It seems to cost him a great effort to pose and hold the dog simultaneously, as if he might drop the dog, break into laugher, or shift his weight at any moment. By contrast, Carolus-Duran’s sitters seem more static and hew more closely to the model of French nineteenth-century academic child portraiture. These subtle differences point to Sargent’s drive to establish himself independently. Though Sargent apparently never exhibited Robert de Cévrieux, he does not seem to have thought of his children’s portraits as lesser commissions, as many artists did. Several of his major works, including The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit [19.124], were of children. Furthermore, Sargent’s willingness to push the bounds of convention with his child sitters—seen in Robert de Cévrieux’s vibrating brushstrokes, despite the traditional pose—enhances the artistic impact of this portion of his oeuvre. Commissions for portraits of children and adults alike were a mainstay for Sargent throughout his career, reflecting his gift for capturing individuality in sitters of all ages. Notes 1. See Barbara Dayer Gallati, Great Expectations: John Singer Sargent Painting Children (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 2004). 2. See also Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 47. Carolyn J. Trench
Lower left: John S. Sargent. 1879
1879, the sitter, Robert de Cevrieux, Paris; November 28, 1921, sold by Robert De Cevrieux to M. Knoedler and Co., New York; 1922, with John Levy Gallery, New York; 1922, consigned to Frank Bayley, Boston; 1922, sold to the MFA for $9,500. (Accession Date: March 2, 1922)
The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden Fund