Portrait of a Boy and Mr. Welfare
Made by Raisa Chowdhury
A trip to the Carnegie Museum of Art.
Created: November 9th, 2014
Portrait of a Boy
The piece I chose for the realistic painting is “Portrait of a Boy” (1890) by John Singer Sargent. My initial impression was that the boy looked bored, annoyed, and impatient. Even without knowing the name of the portrait, it would be easy to tell that the focus of the painting is the boy. His torso is situated exactly in the middle of the frame and the spot where his belly button should be is near the dead center of the entire portrait. Everything in the painting seems to center around the boy, as well. The chair is angled so that it “faces” him and his mother, who is behind him, is leaned towards the boy, but angled out of the portrait frame so that people don’t confuse her as the focus of the painting. Furthermore, the boy’s face is the brightest part of the entire painting. By putting emphasis on that area, Sargent drew the audience’s attention to the boy’s face and made him appear to be the focus of the painting.
Sargent further employs techniques to influence how the audience’s eyes move about the painting by changing the saturation of colors in certain parts of the painting. In the human eye, the cones, which recognize color, are concentrated in the fovea, whose area of sight falls in the center of the field of vision. Thus, people see color most vividly in the center of whatever they are looking at and less intensely near the edges of their vision. Similarly, Sargent painted his portrait so that the center of the portrait, the boy, was the most color-saturated, while the edges of the painting, like the carpet and the drapes, were much less saturated in color. By dimming the amount of color on the edges of the painting, he ensured that people would focus more on the boy.
In addition to influencing how the audience views the painting through color saturation, Sargent also changes how the audience will perceive the boy by orienting him so that his left cheek is more visible and has more light cast on it. Based on multiple cognitive psychology studies, it has been found that most people tend to associate a left-facing portrait as being more emotion. One of the main reasons behind this perception is the fact that as babies, most people were held in the left hand by their, usually, right-handed mothers, so the mothers could do work with their dominant other hand. Therefore, the babies became accustomed to referring to the left side of the mother’s face when gauging emotions; this bias most likely followed them into adulthood and affected how they interpret emotions based on which side of the face they look at. By making the boy’s left cheek more prominent, Sargent made his emotions more readable, allowing for viewers such as myself to be able to read the irritation and disinterest in the boy’s face more easily.
It seems to me as though Sargent is trying to both convey the typical feelings of youth and his frustration that the boy is so fidgety in his portrait, especially by making the boy seem so agitated for having to sit for a portrait. The boy appears to be a typical kid, too impatient to sit still for too long and ready to go and play. In fact, the boy’s feet seem to be poised on the tips of his toes, as if he’s getting ready to shoot up at any moment and run outside to play. His face might be angled towards Sargent for the painting, but his body is angled towards the source of light in the painting, most likely a door or window, further suggesting that the boy wants to be outside and active. The mother, who is sitting behind the boy and reading, further supports the notion that the boy is a typical fidgety kid, because she looks as though she is in mid-sigh and her hands seem to be clenched ever-so-slightly, as though she’s annoyed with his inability to be calm. Sargent appears to be annoyed, as well, for he paints the boy in such a way that the boy’s impatience and inability to sit still are a prominent part of the painting and the mother’s annoyance is obviously but subtly included, so that the audience might subconsciously feel the same. By including all the minor details about how the boy is situated and his facial expressions, Sargent not only conveys the feelings of youth in the boy, but also his own frustration that his subject will not sit still for him.
For the abstract painting, I chose to analyze “Mr. Welfare” by Peter Saul. It initially drew my attention because of how brightly colored it was. All the neon colors, thrown together in what seems to be a completely random way, makes the portrait seem extremely jarring and almost uncomfortable to look at. When analyzing the content of the portrait, it becomes apparent why Saul chose to make his painting seem as shocking as possible.
Saul seems to be making a statement about the absurdity of the class system in American society by placing the “very poor” at the top of his painting, near the “high cost” and the “very rich” near the bottom, just above what seems to be dirty water. Furthermore, by making all of the graduates consume whatever is coming out of the green people, such as “warfare is legal,” he seems to be suggesting that the youth is blindly following whatever is told to them, without checking where the information or advice came from, and perpetuating the illogical class system.
Saul creates the path in “Mr. Welfare” to appear as cyclical, with no defined start or end to the painting, nor any suggestion as to what the intended focus of the piece is. It forces the audience’s eyes to wander about the painting by following the cyclical path and taking in all the absurd details he has included, with no apparent end goal. By not giving the eyes an area to rest, Saul makes his audience tired and confused, which in turn makes them confused as to what’s right and what’s wrong about our society.
As I continued to look at the painting, I noticed that the green figures seem to have features similar to the racist “Sambo doll” from the 1940’s. I think the racist and offensive undertones of the painting are there to increase the uncomfortableness of the viewer and increase the viewer’s awareness as to the absurdity of our society.
While I enjoyed both immensely, I had completely different reactions to the two paintings. While “Portrait of a Boy” was calming, with dark and muted colors and an easy-to-follow structure, “Mr. Welfare,” with its neon colors and strange shapes, was jarring and confusing. I was able to stay at the Sargent painting for nearly an hour, studying every detail of it and trying to find more minute things that I hadn’t noticed before. But with the Saul piece, I found myself unable to stare at it for more than half an hour; it was bright in the most painful (but interesting) way and confusing.
While the Sargent painting was heavily structured as to what the audience is supposed to focus on, through his attention to detail on certain aspects of the boy that he wanted noticed and his reduction of saturation on unimportant aspects of the painting, the Saul painting was all the same. The entire painting had the same amount of saturation and detail, which doesn’t allow for the eye to rest anywhere; it makes the painting far more confusing than the Sargent painting and thus harder to look at for extended periods of time.
A trip to the Carnegie Museum of Art.