The Baptism

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The Baptism

United States, 1892
Paintings
Oil on canvas
79 1/4 x 117 1/4 in. (201.30 x 297.50 cm)
Purchased with funds provided by the Museum Acquisition Fund, Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Harrison Collection, Mr. and Mrs. J. Douglas Pardee, Jo Ann and Julian Ganz, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Charles C. Shoemaker, Mr. and Mrs. William D. Witherspoon, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas H. Crawford, and other donors (80.2)
Currently on public view:
Art of the Americas Building, floor 3 MAP IT
Art of the Americas Building, floor 3

Since gallery displays may change often, please contact us before you visit to make certain this item is on view.

Curator Notes

Stewart’s paintings of the elegant and fashionable world in which he lived were sometimes inspired by specific events and often included his friends....
Stewart’s paintings of the elegant and fashionable world in which he lived were sometimes inspired by specific events and often included his friends. In The Baptism he depicted with a studied realism an elaborate interior and the costume of members of high society gathered to witness the baptism of one of their own. The realistic details suggest that the figures were portraits of specific persons. In Stewart’s earlier painting The Hunt Ball, a key was provided to identify many of the figures. No key is known to exist for The Baptism. The painting has been traditionally considered to be of the Vanderbilts, but all attempts to substantiate this have proved fruitless. Although most of the male figures have distinctive physiognomies, Stewart’s social world was so large encompassing not only Americans but those of many nationalities-that identification is difficult. The art historian Sue Carson Joyner has suggested that the male standing on the far right is a self-portrait. Stewart usually idealized his female figures, giving them handsome, aristocratic profiles, so the similarities among female figures in his paintings can be misleading. The painting was probably not a specific commission, for Stewart was too wealthy to need such work, nor would he have offered it for sale if it were. The painting probably records the baptism of a friend’s child, indicated by the faint inscription of a day and time on the back of the painting, but was not intended to record the event for the public. The Baptism was the culmination of Stewart’s development of elaborate multifigured scenes; thereafter he limited his compositions to smaller groupings. Although the identities of the people remain an enigma, the painting can be appreciated on its own terms. It is a tour de force of technical skill and a prime example of late nineteenth-century academic aesthetics. The persuasiveness of Stewart’s depiction of natural light suggests the fascination with outdoor effects that were just emerging in his art. The picture met with great acclaim at an international exposition held in Berlin in 1895. The realistic illusion of the rich damask wall coverings, the silk, satin, and lace trim of the figures’ attire, and the soft, delicately rendered skin of the women and children captivate viewers even today.
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About The Era

The late nineteenth century witnessed a growing cosmopolitanism and sophistication in American culture....
The late nineteenth century witnessed a growing cosmopolitanism and sophistication in American culture. Great riches were amassed by railroad tycoons and land barons, and along with this came the desire for a luxurious standard of living. Collectors filled their homes with European as well as American works of art. American artists, generally trained abroad, often painted in styles that were indistinguishable from their European counterparts.
Most Americans who studied abroad did so in the European academies, which promoted uplifting subject matter and a representational style that emphasized well-modeled, clearly defined forms and realistic color. Academic painting served American artists well, for their clients demanded elaborate large-scale paintings to demonstrate their wealth and social positions. With an emphasis on material objects and textures, academic artists immortalized their patrons’ importance in full-length portraits.
Academic painting dominated taste in Europe throughout the century. But in the 1860s impressionism emerged in France as a reaction to this hegemony. By the 1880s this “new painting” was still considered progressive. Mary Cassatt was the only American invited to participate in the revolutionary Paris impressionist exhibitions. Despite her participation and the early interest of several other American painters, few Americans explored impressionism until the 1890s. Impressionist painters no longer had to choose subject matter of an elevated character but instead could depict everyday scenes and incidents. Nor did impressionists have to record the physical world with the objective detail of a photograph. Artists were now encouraged to leave their studios and paint outside under different weather conditions. American impressionists used the new aesthetic to capture the charm and beauty of the countryside and the city as well as the quiet delicacy of domestic interiors.
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Label

The son of expatriate William Stewart (a wealthy owner of Cuban sugar plantations), Julius Stewart was raised abroad....
The son of expatriate William Stewart (a wealthy owner of Cuban sugar plantations), Julius Stewart was raised abroad. After studying with French and Spanish academic artists, he turned to figure painting, becoming a master of genre scenes of the fashionable elite. Many of his paintings were large-scale compositions with numerous figures; all illustrated an extravagant lifestyle in great detail. Although Stewart usually depicted the carefree existence of the leisure class, The Baptism is a more solemn occasion – an Episcopal priest officiates in bringing a newborn infant into the Anglican church. That the event occurred in a lavishly decorated home may suggest that the mother of the newborn was too ill to attend a church service. Although the painting originally had an inscription indicating the date and time of the scene, all attempts to identify the event have proved inconclusive. If the painting were a commission, then Stewart’s patron never accepted the finished canvas, because it was for sale when exhibited in 1897. The patron may have declined the painting, as details in it hint at the death of the newborn’s mother. Not only does she appear thoroughly exhausted as she reclines on the chaise lounge, but she holds her right hand a small bouquet of violets, the floral symbol of death.
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Bibliography

  • About the Era.
  • Quick, Michael et. al. American Portraiture in the Grand Manner: 1720-1920.  Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1981.
  • Price, Lorna.  Masterpieces from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Los Angeles:  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988.
  • About the Era.
  • Quick, Michael et. al. American Portraiture in the Grand Manner: 1720-1920.  Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1981.
  • Price, Lorna.  Masterpieces from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Los Angeles:  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988.
  • Fort, Ilene Susan and Michael Quick.  American Art:  a Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection.  Los Angeles:  Museum Associates, 1991.
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