To turn, as swimmers into cleaness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary…
|Gerard Wickham - Conrad - 2016|
Just a few weeks ago, I finished my youngest son’s portrait, a small oil painting executed on poplar panel. He is just fourteen years old, a pivotal age in a child’s development into adulthood. With one foot still anchored securely in the cradle, he is dependent on his parents for sustenance and guidance, but, at the same time, he is more capable than ever of taking action independently and sees himself as ready to take on the challenges of the wider world. I recognize this time in his life as one of possibilities. Choices he makes now will often have an impact far into his future. I sort of see him as a courageous explorer embarking on a journey into unchartered territory. On one hand, I envy him, but, on the other, I’m glad it’s not me doing the trailblazing. These were some of the ideas kicking around my brain as I started this portrait. To successfully convey them in imagery, I chose to make some radical changes in my normal practices.
Usually in painting, I present my subject indoors, lit by artificial lighting, ordinarily multiple sources carefully arranged to maximize sculptural effect and to establish a satisfying interplay of darks and lights. I prefer to depict the figure in a shallow space, activity organized parallel to the picture plane – somewhat akin to the manner in which figures are presented on the tympanum of a Greek temple. I also typically minimize the effect of atmosphere and shadow, offering an interpretation of visual reality that eschews ambiguity and distortion.
In this portrait of my son, it was essential that he be presented outdoors. Space represents possibilities, challenges, the unknown. Sunshine obliterates nuance, transforming sculptural form into flat planes where it touches directly. While I most often opt to portray an individual straight on, I chose here to depict my son from below, making him appear more heroic and bringing in a large swatch of clear blue sky to fill the space behind him. Initially the garage was not included in the painting, but I added it in later because it was needed. It anchors the composition, providing contrast with the broad expanse of the sky, but I was particularly interested in the web of shadows cast on the face of the structure. It is late fall. Though the day is clear, the sunlight bright and transforming, the sun is low on the horizon, its reach already becoming feeble. The trees are bare. Winter is coming on.
It’s hard to put into words exactly what I was hoping to project in this portrait, but I feel that I got it right, that I arrived at the image I had in mind before getting started. Although the decisions I make in constructing a painting are usually very deliberate, dissecting a work, as I have done above, is generally fruitless and misleading. The impact of visual art is overwhelmingly emotional and immediate. So, my advice is to study the painting, skim over my words.
The concept of adolescence is a fairly recent invention. It wasn’t until Victorian times when upper-class children were receiving extended education that the period between the age of thirteen and the early twenties was considered a unique stage of life stationed between childhood and adulthood. Prior to that the natural assumption was that, when a child was physically capable of taking on an adult role, he or she would do so. Hence it was the norm to find children employed or encouraged to marry at a very early age. With the development of the concept of adolescence, children experienced a delay in the assumption of adult roles and responsibilities. To some, this delay must have come as a welcome relief and to others, a purgatory; most likely, for the majority of adolescents the experience represents a little of both. Rarely is a child, upon entering adolescence, equipped to function in the adult world; expectations are simply too high and the world is an incredibly complex place these days. On the other hand, the adolescent often feels the need to assert him or herself as fully mature and far more sophisticated than the adults who serve as authorities or guides within his or her life. This duality results in an uneasy limbo, a frustratingly long period enhanced by freedom from real responsibilities yet defined by seemingly absurd restrictions, thwarted ambitions and unfulfilled desires. So adolescence is definitely a charged period in human development characterized by intense emotions and regular upheaval – which really makes for an ideal theme to address in art. I thought it would be interesting to take a brief and very selective survey of how some artists explored this theme in their work.
Before modern times, it was the norm to dress children, once out of infancy, identically to adults, so it can be a challenging task to identify adolescents in paintings.
|Peter Paul Rubens - Clara Serena Rubens - c1615|
|Sandro Botticelli - Portrait of a Young Man - c1482|
We are more accustomed to seeing teenagers establishing their own unique styles of grooming and dress, styles that commonly challenge accepted standards and can often seem ridiculous or offensive to adults.
|Anne-Louis Girodet - Portrait of a Youth - 1795|
When I first saw this portrait by Girodet, I thought that the young man depicted was a street urchin too impoverished to dress properly and get a professional haircut. Upon performing a little research, I learned that this youth embodied the prevailing styles of post-Revolutionary
. His simple dress with exposed neck was quite
fashionable at the time this portrait was painted. The boy’s odd, disheveled hair-do was
actually arranged in a popular style of the era known as “Oreilles de chien” or
dog’s ears because of its resemblance to the dangling ears of a spaniel. France
A child’s transition into adulthood can be painful to both the child and the parents. Often, a happy and unguarded child can become closed-off and distant during this period.
|Edvard Munch - The Four Sons of Dr. Linde - 1903|
In this group portrait by Munch, the oldest son is not engaged with the viewer. His head is tilted wistfully to the side. His eyes no longer see; they are focused internally on private dreams and musings. There is already a divide that separates him from his younger siblings.
|John Singer Sargent - The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit - 1882|
Sargent also addresses the gulf between childhood and adulthood. The children in this painting are arranged so they retreat, youngest to oldest, away from the viewer, the two oldest sisters set in a distant, dark alcove which places them both physically and emotionally apart from the group. The senior of the two is turned in profile, shrouded in shadow, no longer accessible to the artist and, consequently, the viewer too.
|Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun - Portrait of the Artist's Younger Brother - c1770|
Vigee-Le Brun portrays her brother as a student, armed with the tools of his trade, venturing forth happily into the world to obtain the education and skills necessary to a successful adult.
|Edouard Manet - Luncheon in the Studio - 1868|
With this work by Manet, as is common within his ouerve, it is a little difficult to differentiate between reality and artifice. Obviously, the setting is staged: the interior of a studio stocked with props and costumes. We are encouraged to question whether the three individuals, a youth commanding the center of the scene, a man seated at a table displaying food and tableware and an indistinct woman standing in the background grasping a carafe, are “real” people inhabiting the studio space or simply models posing within that space to play a role or fulfill compositional needs. A potted plant residing in the corner of the room asserts a presence equivalent to that of the people inhabiting the space. The leavings from the meal are arranged similarly to articles inhabiting many a Dutch still-life. There is a wall hanging behind the man that curiously resembles a map that appears in the background of several of Vermeer’s paintings. The helmet and weapons hearken back to Rembrandt. With this preponderance of references, Manet is deliberately deconstructing his own image, suggesting that the artist cannot address experience without being influenced by art history and that the boundary between actuality and craft is extremely tenuous. After some consideration, a determination becomes possible. The man portrayed is an artist who has taken a break from his work to share lunch with a young man, most likely his son. The meal is over. The artist is enjoying an after meal smoke, while the youth pauses before exiting the scene and a servant waits to be summoned to pour more coffee. A comparison between the adult male and the youth is revealing. The adult, sporting a full beard and dressed plainly in dark clothes crowned with a gray top hat, sits behind a table filled with the remains of an elaborate meal. He is lost in his sensual pleasures, momentarily oblivious to his surroundings. He is passive. Conversely, the youth is active, demanding our attention. He is dressed fashionably, almost flashily, in a pork pie hat, light, subtly striped pants, a white shirt striped in blue and a patterned tie. His hair is neatly cut. He gazes confidently past the viewer with a smug, confidant expression on his face. He appears more than adequately prepared to confront the world.
At the turn of the twentieth century, many artists were forthrightly addressing themes of sexuality in their work, and their exploration of adolescence naturally focused on the development of a sexual identity resulting with physical maturation.
|Edvard Munch - Puberty - c1894|
Here Munch presents adolescence as a horrifying period of transition. This girl, naked and vulnerable, draws her knees together tightly and places her hands between her thighs protectively. Her eyes are wide with the realization that she is being perceived differently than in the past, that her innocent childhood days have lapsed. The weight of sexual responsibility, personified as a dark, looming shadow, haunts her like an ever-present specter.
|Ferdinand Hodler - Spring - 1901|
Hodler, on the other hand, defines adolescence as an exciting period of sexual awakening akin to the seasonal rebirth of the natural world in spring.
|Fairfield Porter - Jerry - c1955|
|Fairfield Porter - Lawrence at the Piano - 1953|
|Fairfield Porter - Chris, Sarah, Felicity - 1959|
Porter’s adolescents are depicted in a protected environment insulated from external judgement. They dress plainly and comfortably with little concern to impress an audience or project their adultness. There is a lazy clumsiness in their bearings. The inexpensive sneakers, elaborately decorated slippers and pants hiked high on the waist exposing bare ankles attest to their ties to childhood, their allegiance to the familial nest. But their faces express a sullen boredom, a barely recognized desire to explore territories beyond the safe confines of the home. Only in Chris, Sarah, Felicity do we see a young male who dresses more provocatively and projects the aura of hostility and rebellion we commonly associate with youth culture today.
|Alice Neel - Olivia - 1975|
|Alice Neel - Olivia with Rubber Plant - 1977|
|Alice Neel - Swedish Girls - 1968|
|Alice Neel - Ginny in Striped Shirt - 1969|
In all of her portraits, Neel insightfully dissects her subject, not cruelly but choosing to use humor and compassion as her primary instruments to explore her sitter’s personality. When painting adolescents, Neel evokes their moody isolation, reveals the insecurity and awkwardness underlying all of their apparent bravado and exaggerates the absurd fashions which they often embrace so readily.
|Andrew Wyeth - Roasted Chestnuts - 1956|
|Andrew Wyeth - The Swinger - 1969|
Wyeth expertly documents the wiry body type that often results from years of rapid growth in the early adolescent years. These young men appear impossibly lean and lanky. I’ve particularly admired The Swinger for many years. In this painting, Wyeth skillfully captures the nonchalance and swagger so essential to youth culture in the 1960s.
|Sally Mann - Emmett and the White Boy - 1990|
|Sally Mann - Candy Cigarette - 1989|
|Sally Mann - At Charlie's Farm - 1990|
In many of her photographs, Mann has recorded images of her children’s development. Some of her finest work addresses the theme of adolescence, particularly the period just before physical maturation. The children in these photographs are attempting to project an adult-like sophistication and worldliness, even an aura of threat. They seem more than willing to embrace the forbidden behaviors and practices of adults, but, of course, we recognize that we are only observing children’s games, the mock interpretations of grown up activities. There is a darkness and sadness in these photographs. We, as viewers, share a mother’s response to witnessing her children abandoning the security, wonderment and innocence of childhood to venture into the world of adult complications, awareness and responsibility.
Even my small survey has shown that artists have expressed quite diverse opinions concerning adolescence. I think this most likely reflects the views of the general population also. Adolescence can be characterized as a period of amazing change, exciting challenges and expanding opportunities. Conversely, artists have portrayed this phase of life as one of awkward transformation, emotional instability and slavish conformity to fashion. Inevitably, with the taking on of the onus of adult responsibilities, a loss of childhood enthusiasm and innocence results. Often adolescents are too impatient to make the transition into adulthood – a symptom of the “grass is always greener” syndrome which seems to infect most people of all ages in contemporary society. Looking back now, I realize that childhood is an incredibly unique and fleeting period of our lives, one that should be savored and extended for as long as feasibly possible. And, even as adults, we should struggle to retain a childlike perspective, permitting us to experience our banal and ordinary surroundings with a fresh eye and to take great pleasure in the seemingly insignificant occurrences of our daily lives. For an artist, this struggle is particularly critical, for without the ability to see “reality” in a new way…to find the extraordinary in the ordinary…to view as fascinating that which others ignore, the creation of credible art is impossible.
“I, Eternal Child, always watched the passage of the rutting people and did not want to be inside them, I said – spoke and did not speak, I listened and wanted to hear them and see into them, strongly and more strongly.”
- Egon Schiele
As always, I encourage readers to comment here. If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.