Dame Laura Knight is among Britain’s most preeminent female painters and printmakers, celebrated for her depictions of circus and theatre performers, as well as her emotionally charged portraits of women and children. One of her most significant series during her long career, however, was set in Baltimore, where she controversially gave face to another marginalised sector: Black Americans.
In 1926, Knight accompanied her husband Harold, also an artist, on a visit to Baltimore where he had been commissioned to paint portraits of the Johns Hopkins faculty. During their stay, Laura focused her attention on the patients and staff in the racially segregated wards of two hospitals, where she produced powerful and timeless works, such as A Child at the Baltimore Children’s Hospital, which will be offered in Christie’s European Art Part I on 13 October in New York.
‘All of Laura Knight’s paintings offer a unique way of looking into the past, but few feel quite as immediate to a contemporary viewer as this portrait. You see the sitter reflected so clearly, and her personality really comes through. She feels like someone you could see walking down the street today,’ says Laura H. Mathis, head of the 19th Century European Art sale. ‘Often there is this veil of time between you and the sitter, whereas, I don’t feel like that exists in this work.’
While many portraits are easily datable due to the wearer’s clothing, here, the child is depicted up close, obscuring most of her surroundings, and yet her white gown reflects how universally recognisable hospital attire has remained. The contrast between her monochromatic clothing and cushioned background with her dark complexion further heightens her intense gaze and innocent, youthful features.
Raised by a single mother in challenging financial circumstances at the end of the 19th century, Knight did not have any children of her own, yet clearly took great interest in them. As illustrated here, her portraits of youths demonstrate a particularly sensitive, empathetic approach to capturing the rawness of their emotions with the same degree of seriousness as her adult subjects.
Knight’s innate understanding of the complexity of the human mind, coupled with her fearlessness to tackle subjects outside the norm (including a self-portrait of herself painting a nude model) are why she earned history-making accolades. She became a dame in 1929, and in 1936, she was the first female artist elected as a full member of the Royal Academy, nearly two centuries after the institution’s founding.
Knight also served as an official war artist during the Second World War. The artist’s trailblazing oeuvre was examined in a 2013 exhibition titled Laura Knight: Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, London, where A Child at the Baltimore Children’s Hospital was featured.
Behind the portrait’s warmth and beauty, however, are problematic contexts, both inherent in Knight’s preconceived notions about Black Americans, and in Baltimore, which was and remains one of America’s most segregated cities. Knight’s initial interest in painting Black sitters was likely driven by a wider fascination with Black culture in the UK during the late 1910s and 1920s that was largely a result of the burgeoning Jazz Age. When visiting America from London, she was surprised to not find African masks or religious figures (prolific, yet reductive and exoticised tropes) in secondhand shops around Baltimore, for example.
Knight became more aware of the realities of Black-American life as she formed a friendship with Pearl Zelma Johnson, a Black physician’s assistant who worked for Dr. William Baer, a doctor her husband had been commissioned to paint and the Knights’ host during their stay in Baltimore. Pearl, along with her sister Irene Johnson Dodson, both of whom Laura painted, were members of the Interracial Fellowship Group, which fought against segregation in Baltimore businesses, and Knight attended several local events with them.
Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital opened in 1889 through the then-largest philanthropic bequest in American history with a mandate to serve the city’s residents ‘without regard to sex, age or color.’ While it was one of the few leading hospitals in America that treated African Americans, the hospital was still segregated, and racist attitudes were undeniably a part of the relationship between the hospital and its patients. This was similarly the case at the Children’s Hospital, where Knight painted young orthopedic patients. Her permission to paint in the segregated wards came from the hospital administration, rather than the patients themselves, who understandably questioned her presence.
Nearly nothing is known of the sitter’s identity in A Child at the Baltimore Children’s Hospital, which is emblematic of the Black American experience in itself. What can be stated though is that far from letting herself be passively observed, the child remains alert and cautious, directly returning the gaze of the viewer. Rather than depicting her from an adult height and perspective, the eye lines of the sitter and the viewer are aligned.
‘What's interesting about Knight is that her femaleness helped grant her access to these spaces that a male artist wouldn’t be able to access,’ explains Mathis. ‘I can’t picture a male artist being welcomed into the children’s ward of a hospital to paint. Being a woman can act like a cloak in a way. It’s the reason she could go into places like dressing rooms of the circus or the ballet. Her access to these different social spaces allowed Knight to approach her subjects from a very distinct perspective’
Anticipating Robert Frank and other photographers who chronicled alternative visions of America, Knight remains one of art history’s ultimate storytellers.