William Sergeant Kendall: American Master

The following essay was written in 1983 by Robert Austin and included in the catalogue for the William Sergeant Kendall exhibition held at Owen Gallery, New York, from April 15 through June 19, 1998.

In Stones of Venice John Ruskin wrote, “what we want art to do for us is to stay what is fleeting . . immortalize the things that have no duration.” [1] In large part, that is what has led Americans to rediscover the art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when artists believed that legitimate art could be created from the descriptive portrayal of families and neighborhoods.

William Sergeant Kendall specialized in painting his daughters and wife. He was born at Spuyten Duyvil, which in 1869 was a picturesque village of tree-lined streets by the Harlem River, as yet unincorporated into New York City. Summers were frequently spent at Clarkesville, New York, where Kendall hunted in the Helderberg Mountains and, at the age of twelve, created his first paintings. When he was still a boy he dropped the use of his first name and began signing his work Sergeant Kendall, using his mother’s family name.

With the encouragement of his family, Kendall enrolled at the Brooklyn Art Guild when he was fourteen. Thomas Eakins, who had begun teaching there the previous year, became Kendall’s first teacher and an everlasting influence on his choice of subject. When Eakins returned to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1884 Kendall continued there with him. “Eakins came in today and criticized my work. He said my work ‘was not bad’ which as you know is good praise for him!,” he wrote his parents from Philadelphia in 1885.[2]

In 1886 Kendall returned to New York and studied with Harry Siddons Mowbray and J. Carroll Beckwith at the Art Students League. Eakins, Mowbray and Beckwith had all been trained in France, which undoubtedly convinced Kendall to leave for France in 1888, accompanied by John Lambert, a friend and fellow student from Philadelphia. Both artists began to study with Luc Olivier Merson, but in 1889, when Merson temporarily dissolved his atelier, Kendall moved to the Academie Julian, where he worked on and off for three years. He passed the difficult entrance examination to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but did not like the school enough to spend much time there.

A classicist who insisted on precise drawing, Merson had a profound influence on Kendall’s technique. Unlike Eakins, he had little interest in chiaroscuro modeling, which suited Kendall, who considered dark backgrounds a cover-up for bad drawing and complained that Whistler’s influence was too much in evidence at the Salon.[3] But, as might be guessed, Kendall was never able to totally combine technique from Merson and subject matter from Eakins.

Kendall’s adoption of a nonspecific light source that eliminated most shadows  removed him from the impressionist influences that so many of his American contemporaries embraced. It is probable that he arrived at this technique by observing the diffused light in canvases of Jules Bastien-Lepage, whose work he admitted he liked.

In the summer of 1891 Kendall traveled to Madrid to see and copy the work of Velazquez,  whom he considered the first great modern painter. But most summers he spent in Brittany at Concarneau or Le Pouldu. Sometimes he shared a summer studio with fellow students, among them William Henry Hyde, John Humphreys Johnstone, Henry McCarter, Wilton Lockwood, and John Lambert. The Americans especially liked the young Breton girls, who, besides being pretty, were inexpensive and authentic models for the costume genre pictures so frequently shown at the Salon.

On the advice of Charles Curran, an American artist he met in Paris, Kendall sent The Little Water Carrier – Brittany and a Breton landscape to the National Academy of Design in New York City in 1890. It was at the Paris Salon of 1891, however, that one of Kendall’s Breton pictures first won an honorable mention. Since acceptance at the Salon was still the world-wide standard of success, his award brought him letters of congratulation from American collectors and an offer of a teaching job at the Cooper Union in New York City. However, Merson convinced Kendall to study for another year in France.

Returning in 1892, Kendall took a studio in the University Building on Washington Square in New York City. At the Cooper Union, where he taught a women’s painting class from 1892 to 1895, one of his students was Margaret Weston Stickney, whom he married early in 1896, a little more than a year after they met. Their first child, Elisabeth, was born that fall on Gerrish Island off the coast of Maine, where they had spent the summer painting. With Elisabeth’s birth Kendall found his subject matter: his family. Beatrice was born in 1902 and Alison in 1907, so for about twenty-five years there was always a Kendall child to paint.

Between 1897 and 1906 the Kendalls lived on Manhattan’s west side, first on Twenty-second Street and then on Forty-second Street, before moving to Barrytown on the Hudson River. During these years Kendall won numerous prizes, including a medal at the Carnegie Institute in 1900, a medal at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900, the Shaw Prize of the Society of American Artists in 1901, and the Shaw Fund Purchase Prize in 1903. In 1901 he was elected an associate and in 1905, an academician of the National Academy of Design.

In 1910 the Kendalls moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where they bought Marin Cottage, ostensibly to have a more isolated home and studio. When Frank Jewett Mather Jr. visited Kendall there in 1910 to interview him for a magazine article, Kendall was certainly the most famous painter of children of his age. Mather called him a “classical intimist,”[4] noting that while the two approaches are not normally compatible, he believed that Kendall’s tendency toward a cool classicism had been fortunately tempered by the domestic scenes he preferred to paint.

Kendall’s pictures of his family fall into four principal categories: mother and child, girl and mirror, tree pictures, and youthful nudes. The subject he loved the most and which he painted most extensively was mother and child. The End of the Day, of 1900, which shows his wife reading a bedtime story to Elisabeth, was his first of this genre and his first to utilize the basic format of a child’s head in the center of the picture and his wife’s in profile. The End of the Day became widely known when it was issued as a print.

In all of his outdoor pictures Kendall reduces the landscape to patches glimpsed beyond the outlines of his figures. In the best tradition of his academic training, he never allows the human element to be subordinated. Among the tree pictures, A Fairy Tale is a touching, openly sentimental portrait of his wife and Elisabeth. Other outstanding tree pictures include Il Penseroso and L’Allegro. It seems too bad that Kendall did not paint more pictures outdoors, but one can hardly blame him. After painting A Garden Hat outdoors in 1915 he wrote, “I was nearly eaten alive by mosquitoes.”[5]

The mirror pictures are the most delightful of Kendall’s oeuvre. The first ones, painted in 1907, were of Beatrice. He returned to the theme in 1913 with Alison as his model. He clearly loved the reflections, for they gave him, in effect, two daughters to paint instead of one. Some mirror pictures depict interiors reminiscent of those created by the nineteenth-century genre painters. Yet they differ from most earlier genre pictures – say, those of Eastman Johnson and Seymour Joseph Guy – because of their larger size.

Americans have never felt entirely comfortable with paintings of the nude. Perhaps Kendall’s nudes were so well liked because they often showed children and were therefore removed from the sexual context. Many of the nude paintings are so precisely painted that they approach drawing as closely as painting can. This is certainly one of the reasons why Kendall liked painting the nude, for clothing, after all, creates an ambiguous outline.

Kendall made numerous preparatory drawings and sometimes created a complete pastel version, as he did for A Fairy Tale. Although he made corrections in anatomy and design before beginning to paint, his canvases still usually took him months to complete. Like many artists of the period,  Kendall relied on portraits for part of his income. His sitters included Helen Huntington (later Mrs. Vincent Astor) and President William Howard Taft, although posing for him was apparently no easy task. Helen Huntington sat twenty-four times before Kendall considered her full-length portrait finished. [7] His usual fee for a full-length portrait was $4,000; a head alone was $1,500; head and hands, $2,000; and a half-length portrait, $3,000.

Kendall and the artist Albert Herter became friends at the Art Students League. It was a fruitful friendship for Kendall, resulting in a number of portrait commissions from members of the prominent Herter family. In 1904 Herter’s niece Christine, then thirteen, began taking private painting lessons from Kendall. They shared a common interest in playing the violin and a friendship developed quickly between them. For years Christine was almost a daily visitor to the Kendall studio, first in New York City and then in Barrytown, and when Kendall moved to Newport she followed and rented a studio nearby. When she traveled to Europe, as she did most summers, she and Kendall wrote constantly.

In 1913 Kendall succeeded John Ferguson Weir as head of the department of fine arts at Yale University and the family moved to New Haven. One former student described Kendall as being intensely earnest, “unalloyed by a sense of humor” and given to “fits of displeasure.”[9] Perhaps because his duties at Yale were so extensive his portraits from this period, frequently of Yale deans, appear stiff` and uninspired.

About the time Kendall joined Yale, Christine left for Paris to continue her studies. When she returned, shortly after war was declared in Europe, she enrolled at Yale as a student in the fine-arts department, but continued to work in Kendall’s studio, occasionally posing for him. In 1916 Kendall painted a wonderful portrait of her in the garden behind his house. Originally titled The Yellow Hat, it was exhibited at the National Academy the year it was painted as The Turquoise Necklace.

Kendall continued his practice of summering in the country where Christine usually joined the family for part of the time. In the summers of 1918, 1919, and 1920 the Kendalls were in Brattleboro, Vermont. It was there, beside a small stream on the estate where they stayed, that Kendall painted A Child, perhaps his best individual study of his daughter Alison, although the critic W. H. de B. Nelson, reviewing the spring National Academy show of 1919, wrote that the picture was “principally noticeable for the extraordinary drawing of the feet which look like visiting cards with toes attached.” [11]

In the fall of 1921 the Kendalls were divorced; in March 1922 Kendall resigned from Yale; in June he sold the New Haven house, and shortly thereafter he married Christine. He was fifty-three; she, thirty-two.

Increasingly unhappy about the growing dominance of modern art in New York City the Kendalls moved to an isolated, mountainous area near Hot Springs, Virginia, with a view across the Allegheny Mountains into West Virginia. There they built a large house they named Garth Newel and stables in which they raised the Arabian horses they rode year round.

Kendall continued to exhibit, turning to classical subjects, usually adult nudes, with titles such as Keheilet, Eidolon, Cypripedia, and Gloria. [11] He remained an active painter until his death, in Hot Springs, in 1938.



  1. John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice(New York, 1891 ed.), vol. 3, p. 48.
  2. William Sergeant Kendall to Benjamin Franklin Kendall and Elizabeth Ann Sergeant Kcndall, Philadelphia, 1885. Kendall Papers, New York Historical Society.
  3. Kendall to Benjamin and Elizabeth Kendall, Paris, January 18, 1890. Kendall Papers.
  4. Art and Decoration,vol. 1 (November 1910), p. 15.
  5. Entry for August 3, 1915, in Kendall’s diary. Kendall Papers.
  6. In 1980 the pastel belonged to Christine Herter Kendall.
  7. Entry for October 24, 1908, in Kendall’s diary. Kendall Papers.
  8. Kendall’s account book. Kendall Papers.
  9. R. H. Ives Gammell to Robert Austin, October 24, 1980.
  10. W. H. de B. Nelson, “Restrained and Unrestrained,” International Studio, May 1919, p. LXXIV.
  11. Keheilet was exhibited at the National Academy in 1926 and at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington in 1933; Eidolonwas shown at the National Academy in 1926; Cypripedia at the National Academy in 1927, where it was awarded the Isidor Medal; and Nur at the National Academy in 1929 (illustrated in Art and Archaeology for March 1930, p. 130). The whereabouts of these paintings are unknown today.


Biographical information on the author:

Robert Austin is a noted art historian, who, at the time of the Owen Gallery exhibition, was writing a definitive catalogue on the artists of Litchfield County, Connecticut.