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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.

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