The picturesque town of Newport, Rhode Island of the late nineteenth century has been described as a place where "the railroad barons and the emperors of finance competed with the consuls-for-life of copper and steel, pitting marble palace against granite-turreted castle in their quest for splendour. Nothing could be too elaborate in this seaside community that existed but three months a year, where money was a common possession, spoken of in terms of pride and admiration, and culture served as the defense of ladies bored with mundane discussion." (C.M. Mount, John Singer Sargent, London, England, 1957, p. 105) It was in Newport in 1887 that John Singer Sargent painted his portrait of the young Caspar Goodrich during an extended trip to the United States, when he was at the height of his skills and looking for commissioned work. His reception in America could not have been better, members of some of America's wealthiest families lined up to make his acquaintance and to have their portraits painted.
Perfectly timed for Sargent's arrival in Newport, his close friend Henry James published a glowing article on the artist's career in Harper's Magazine as a means to introduce the artist to American society. James's piece "achieve[d] the effect he sought, producing in the sheer magic of words an image of youthful achievement and brilliance, and creating the impression at Newport that artistic success was accompanied also by more worldly considerations. In the breezes of Bellevue Avenue, he seemed borne along by limpid atmospheres of sweet European approval; an air of prosperity surrounded him; and Newport, having read of him, and seen him pass on the Avenue, was anxious to make his acquaintance." (C.M. Mount, John Singer Sargent, p. 107) Sargent's sumptuous portraits were the perfect compliment to the luxurious cottages of Newport, for "he brought with him the latest fashion in portraiture. His paintings looked at home in the sophisticated European interiors designed by architects like Stanford White, who was influential in introducing him to prospective patrons. Above all he endowed his sitters with a glamour and panache that none of his rivals could match." (Sargent: The Early Portraits , p. 195)
While all of Newport angled for a meeting with the great European-bred artist, Sargent resided comfortably with his old friends, Admiral and Mrs. Caspar Goodrich, parents of the young sitter. Charles Merrill Mount describes Sargent's arrival in the United States: "He arrived at Torpedo Station huge and dominant, smiling and eager. It was years since he had seen the Goodriches, and since those peaceful days at Florence [Mrs. Goodrich] had borne a son, doubtless one day to enter the Navy, and a daughter, both of whom he would meet. It was pleasant to find friends in a strange place: Admiral Goodrich, who still spoke of the sea and ships as Dr. Sargent had. . . ." (John Singer Sargent, p. 106) Inscribed to the sitter's mother, it is presumed that Sargent's portrait of Caspar Goodrich was not a commissioned work, but a token of gratitude for the Goodrich's hospitality during the artist's stay.
Caspar Goodrich has enjoyed a long history of critical acclaim. In January 1888, shortly after it was painted, Caspar Goodrich was exhibited at Boston's St. Botolph Club along with some of Sargent's most celebrated pictures, including El Jaleo (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts) and The Daughters of Edward D. Boit (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts). The show galvanized his already strong support by his American audience. Royal Cortissoz compared Caspar Goodrich favorably with some of Sargent's most celebrated pictures: "This likeness of a little boy in a sailor's suit is a charming interpretation of boyish character .... [in which] he has treated adolescence with the most searching understanding." (as quoted in W.H. Downes, John S. Sargent, His Life and Work, Boston, Massachusetts, 1925, p. 150)
The six year old Caspar Goodrich would have been an irresistible subject for Sargent. A beautiful young boy with a peachy complexion and dark eyes, Sargent painted him wearing a sailor suit, the most fashionable costume for a young boy throughout the nineteenth century. Capturing the boy with arms crossed, gazing directly at the viewer, Sargent conveys the impression of both mischief and good manners. Almost in spite of himself, a smile appears to be emanating from beneath the surface of the headstrong subject. Unlike their adult counterparts, Sargent's young sitters were unselfconscious and provided the artist with subject matter from which he derived some of his best work - enduring portraits that convey much more than the physical attributes of the subject.