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Robert Torchia, “Lydia Field Emmet/Harriet Lancashire White (Mrs. Edward Laurence White) and Her Children, Sarah and Laurence/1922,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/46302 (accessed May 27, 2020).

 

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Overview

Painted in 1922, Harriet Lancashire White and Her Children is a typical example of Lydia Field Emmet’s formal, commissioned society portraiture. The painting represents Harriet W. Lancashire White, the wife of a New York investment banker, and her two children, Sarah Lancashire White and E. Laurence White Jr. The viewer seems to have intruded upon a quiet family gathering during which the mother was entertaining her children with the illustrated book that rests on her lap. Both the mother and daughter look directly at the spectator, while the boy gazes off to the left as if something has momentarily captured his attention. Sarah White grew up to be “well known in New England riding and hunt circles,” and E. Laurence White Jr. graduated from Harvard College in 1941 and became a partner in a New York advertising firm.

Active in New York and Massachusetts, Lydia Field Emmet was one of the leading society portraitists of her generation. Particularly admired for her portraits of women and children, at the height of her career she was considered one of the most talented American woman artists, second only to Cecilia Beaux. Her fluid, painterly style was influenced by John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase. The latter had been one of her teachers at the Art Students League in New York, and she taught at his Shinnecock Summer School of Art on Long Island.

Entry

This full-length group portrait represents Harriet W. Lancashire White and her two children, Sarah Lancashire White and E. Laurence White Jr. Harriet W. Lancashire was born in 1884 in Saratoga Springs, New York, the eldest daughter of Dr. and Mrs. James H. Lancashire. In 1911 she married the investment banker Edward Laurence White of Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, and New York City.[1] Their daughter, Sarah White, was a member of the Vincent Club and Junior League of Boston; according to the New York Times she was “well known in New England riding and hunt circles.”[2] Their son, E. Laurence White Jr., graduated from Harvard College in 1941 and became a partner at Bassinette & White, a New York advertising firm. The artist, Lydia Field Emmet, was part of a groundbreaking generation of professional women portraitists in the Emmet family that included her older sister, Rosina Emmet Sherwood, and her younger cousin Ellen Emmet Rand. After studying with the American impressionist painter William Merritt Chase, Lydia went on to a highly successful and lucrative career as a society portraitist and was honored with numerous awards at national and international exhibitions.[3]

In this work Emmet has portrayed Harriet White seated with her children on a red-cushioned bench. Harriet's simple black dress is stark against the decorative floral screen behind the group.[4] Placed just off-center in the composition, she is positioned on a slightly diagonal axis relative to the picture plane with her figure oriented toward the right. White’s daughter in her yellow dress and son in his sailor suit affectionately lean on and embrace their mother. The viewer seems to have intruded upon a quiet family gathering during which the mother was entertaining her children with the illustrated book that rests on her lap. Both mother and daughter look directly at the spectator, while the boy gazes off to the left as if something has momentarily captured his attention.

The painting is a not entirely resolved example of Emmet’s family group society portraiture. The spatial relationships of the sitters to their surroundings and to each other are not defined precisely. Their slightly melancholy expressions also imbue the image with an elusive, self-conscious quality that is absent, for instance, from the less complex, more clearly articulated Olivia.

Robert Torchia

August 17, 2018

Inscription

upper left: Lydia Field Emmet

Provenance

The sitter, Harriet Lancashire White [1884-1961, Mrs. Edward Laurance White], Beverly Farms, Massachusetts; gift 1961 to NGA.

Exhibition History
2005
Extended loan for use by Secretary Margaret Spellings, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C., 2005-2008.
Technical Summary

The unlined painting was executed on a medium-weight, plain-weave canvas which is still on its original stretcher, although an extra set of tack holes indicates that it was at some point removed and restretched. An evenly applied tan ground extends to the cut edges of the tacking margins, indicating that it was commercially applied. Infrared reflectography did not reveal a sketch beneath the painted surface but did show an artist change in the area of Mrs. White’s proper right shoulder. No X-radiographic examination was conducted. The paint was built up in the background in washlike, translucent layers; two unexplainable vertical lines on the left side and one on the right side interrupt the background painting in a peculiar way. The sitters were modeled in medium thick layers of translucent color blended wet into wet with low impasto. Ultraviolet examination indicated that the thick layer of very discolored varnish is a natural resin. This varnish layer has significantly altered the tonal relationships of the painting. The painting is otherwise in excellent condition with no significant paint loss.

Bibliography
1970
American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 58, repro.
1980
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 156, repro.
1992
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 175, repro.
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