Thursday, December 8, 2016

Neapolitan Children Bathing: The stories of John Singer Sargent and Robert Sterling Clark

Neapolitan Children Bathing, by John Singer Sargent

Presented to the Club by David T. Noyes on Monday evening, December 5, 2016

Can you remember when the only building housing the Clark Art Institute was the stark, austere, imposing, lonely, marble fortress set back from the street on a knoll in Williamstown? After moving to Pittsfield in 1981, Sue and I made many trips to take in Sterling Clark’s collection. There was no food service at the Museum in those days, so we might grab lunch at the (now defunct) Howard Johnson’s, or have a sandwich at Papa Charlie’s Deli on Spring Street. No visit was complete without admiring this small painting—also titled Innocence Abroad; or Boys on a Beach, Naples, painted in 1879 by John Singer Sargent.

This 11” x 16” canvas shows children enjoying a beautiful sunny day at the beach. Two boys—one with a towel over his face, the other on his stomach with his head propped up on his hand—lie near two other, much younger boys standing. The boy at the center, wearing water wings, looks as though he is trying to get up the courage to wade into the rolling surf. Out in the water, a head bobbing above the rolling waves shows us a swimmer. The only interruption of the blue sky is the sailboat on the horizon. The smallest child, still showing the chubbiness of babyhood, looks outward engaging the viewer, thereby inviting us into their realm. The use of a completely frontal stance became a hallmark of Sargent’s painting as he felt this gave a more powerful image and made a more direct connection with the viewer. The children are all relaxed, and self absorbed—the very epitome of childhood innocence.