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Artist's Attempt To Know Others

Mars, 1918
Public Domain

I’m Jonathan Baker, a writer in Canyon, Texas, and I’m the discussion leader for this month’s Radio Readers Book Club read, A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton. The novel tells the story of John Campton, a celebrated American painter living in Paris.

In 1914, when Campton’s only son George visits his father so that the two can travel through southern Europe, the boy is drafted by the French army and sent off to fight in the Great War. Young George, through an accident of circumstance, was born in France and has no choice in the matter. So, his father is left to appeal to his wealthy clients, whose portraits he paints, to attempt to keep the boy away from the front lines.

In this essay, I want to talk about Wharton’s choice to make her protagonist father an effete painter of portraits, rather than more obvious choices. Wharton was, of course, an American herself living in Europe, and she was intimately familiar with the upper class of expatriates in the Old World. Wharton was close with the American novelist Henry James, who made a permanent home in England, and she also traveled in the same circles as the American portraitist John Singer Sargent, upon whom I believe the protagonist John Campton is partly based. Sargent never painted Edith Wharton’s portrait, but he did paint a number of the women in her circle.

Edith Wharton was herself breathlessly involved in the volunteer war effort in Paris during the First World War, an experience that eventually led her to have a heart attack. While volunteering, Wharton also met the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, another painter whom she cribbed from to create her main character. Renoir had contributed to the war effort a charcoal sketch of his own son, who was wounded in the Great War. It was this sketch that may have sparked Wharton’s idea for A Son at the Front.

In the novel, John Campton’s most famous painting is a study of his own son George, which hangs for a time in a gallery near James McNeil Whistler’s painting of his mother. (Whistler was, of course, another expatriate American artist who lived in Europe for most of his life.) It is in Campton’s repeated portraits of George that the painter grapples with attempting to know his son. I myself and the father of a 14-year-old, and I often wonder what is happening in my boy’s head, or in his soul. If I were a painter, I think I too would try to get at the essence of my son by painting him. So, I understand Campton’s urge here.

What is heartbreaking about Wharton’s choice to make Campton a painter is that, as his boy moves further and further toward the war’s deadly front, Campton finds himself drawing and painting memories of his son, and looking again and again at old portraits of George, as if viewing these frozen images will arrest his boy in time. As if capturing the boy on canvas will prevent the actual George’s forward march toward that dark chasm that inevitably awaits us all.

In one particularly heart-wrenching scene early in the book, Campton paints his son while the boy rests. The sleeping teenager reminds the painter of “a statue of a young knight” he’d seen somewhere. Yet Campton, in his thoughts, is careful to avoid using the word “effigy,” instead, correcting his own inner dialogue to carefully replace any hint of death with the cold and frozen word “statue.” Even in his private thoughts, it seems, the artist s trying to protect his boy from harm. Or is the painter trying to protect himself from the pain he senses gathering on the horizon?