By far the most famous portraitist of his day, John Singer Sargent's paintings of his friends and their children, such as the work here depicting Laurence Millet, are often considered to be his most charming and successful works.
As recorded by Richard Ormond, discussing the subject of this work: "Laurence Frederick Millet (1884-1945) was the son of the American artist Frank Millet and his wife, Lily. He was educated at Oxford and Harvard, where he took a law degree, subsequently practising in New York as a lawyer. It is not known where this picture was painted. Sargent's itineraries do not appear to have taken him to the Millets and Broadway in 1887. The portrait may have been begun there in 1886 and finished and inscribed later, or it may have been painted in London, or in America towards the end of the year." (John Singer Sargent, The Early Portraits, New Haven, Connecticut, 1998, p. 178)
Whatever the precise circumstances of the creation of this work, Sargent maintained an intimate friendship with the Millets, who have been credited with "discovering" Broadway, the picturesque English village in the Cotswolds which became their home for a quarter of a century, and a haunt of Sargent's as well. Of the Millets, Richard Ormond notes that "Sargent was devoted to both of them; he painted pictures of their house and garden, and portraits of their children, one of whom, Kate, was the first model for Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose [Tate Gallery, London, England]." (The Early Portraits, p. 170)
The Millets were a prominent New England family. Laurence's father, Frank, was an artist of substantial note, and often painted with Sargent at Broadway. Frank's biography practically exemplifies the transatlantic life lived by a cultured American at the end of the nineteenth century: "He had a stunning career: war correspondent, author, translator, illustrator, muralist, painter, and indefatigable committeeman. If he had any flaw, it was his excess of abilities... He, too, was a marvelous draftsman, with a delicate touch and an overriding need for accuracy." (S. Olson, Sargent At Broadway, The Impressionist Years, New York, 1986, p. 16).
Sargent's portrait of Laurence is informal, showing the boy at age three, seated with one foot pulled up on his knee. He wears a sailor suit, with his face framed with long curly locks of brown hair. That this work was a gift from the artist inscribed to Laurence's mother, Lily, further attests to the intimacy and affection Sargent held for the Millet family. It remains one of Sargent great successes of his early years.