Sophie Pemberton, Little Boy Blue

Sophie Pemberton, Little Boy Blue (circa 1897)
Little Boy Blue

Sophie Pemberton (1869-1959) was born and raised in Victoria, British Columbia. Her father, Joseph Pemberton, arrived by canoe at Fort Victoria. He worked as a surveyor and engineer for the Hudson’s Bay Company, as well as a legislator and Surveyor -General for the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island. Joseph Pemberton became a leader in the social, cultural, government and business life of early Victoria. For these reasons, he could afford to send his daughter to study art in Paris. The families of Sophie Pemberton and Emily Carr were quite close and she was a huge supporter of Carr’s work, but the socio-economic differences in their families gave Pemberton advantages that Carr did not have. Her social privilege enabled Pemberton to study at the Académie Julian in Paris. As well, her status made for a kinder reception from critics and the public, and her subject matter was more readily accepted. Pemberton was a serious artist, and her subject matter and Victorian style of painting were typical of the early academic traditions of the 19th century. While she enjoyed a locally and internationally successful career at the time, her work was not distinctive enough to challenge, or to stand out from other Victorian painters.

Despite Pemberton’s conformity in style and subject matter, she did challenge the roles expected of women artists. She chose to work in portraiture using oils at a time when most women artists were expected to work in only watercolor landscapes. In addition, Pemberton’s initial enrollment in art school was against her parent’s wishes but was allowed because they never expected her to make a serious career of art. At the time, art was seen as a socially valuable talent among the privileged, who saw art as a means of achievement and recognition. Women were allowed to attend art school knowing that a career in art would always come second to their duties as a wife. As a young, unmarried woman, Pemberton was very successful in Paris. However, as was expected, she painted very little after she married.

The school that Pemberton received her training, the Académie Julian, was established in 1868 as a private school for art students and it was one of the few art schools that allowed women to enroll. Women received all the same basic art training as men, including the controversial drawing and painting of nudes. The drawing of nudes was considered immoral for women. The lack of training that women had in drawing nudes put them at a disadvantage since the most valued paintings were those that depicted the figure. Because of the school's innovative program, most women went on to earn a living as portraitists. This was very progressive for the time, considering society had to this point, not been prepared to accept women as professional artists in the art world. This combination of progressive ideals and business opportunism opened the way for a new generation of women artists who could, and did, compete as professionals in the art world.

Pemberton went to London, England shortly after her education at the Académie Julian, where she shared a studio with a Norwegian artist. Her work was shown at the Royal Academy, the Paris Salon, and at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition during this time. In 1909, she was responsible for the artistic decoration of the Pemberton Chapel interior. The Pemberton Memorial Chapel was gifted to the Royal Jubilee Hospital from her mother.

Sophie Pemberton was the first Canadian to receive the Prix Julian from Paris's Académie Julian for her portrait of Little Boy Blue in 1899, two years after its creation. She received favorable reviews from critics in her home province as well. A Vancouver newspaper wrote: “Those of us who take any interest in anything but dollars and mining shares are delighted by the news that...Miss Sophie Pemberton has fulfilled some of the promise of her childhood...a large picture by her has been awarded an honorable position in Room 1 at the Royal Academy’s Exhibition of pictures in London.” (Source: * below). Pemberton’s success overshadowed the work of other fellow women artists from Victoria, including Emily Carr. Pemberton’s praise, both locally and internationally, is an interesting contrast to the negative reception of Carr’s work.
In 1899, she was British Columbia’s first painter to achieve professional distinction when she received the Prix Julian gold medal. Her paintings were exhibited in Paris Salons and the local critics praised her as a talented painter.

Despite her success, there is scarce biographical information on Sophie Pemberton and women artists in general, making it problematic in finding information, or trying to construct an accurate history of women artists. One problem is that the types of crafts that women usually produced were not the kind of artistic work that could be signed. Weaving, embroidery, as well as manuscript illumination could not be signed and remain largely unknown to this day. Textiles in particular are usually functional objects and are subject to wear over time. Another problem is the tradition of women taking their husbands’ last name. This makes it difficult to conduct research when the artists name changes. Sophie Pemberton is known as “Sophie Pemberton” only until 1905, when she became Mrs. Sophie Beanlands until his death in 1917, she than became Mrs. Sophie Deane-Drummond after her second marriage to Horace Deane-Drummond. The Pemberton’s were a wealthy, well known family, so her maiden name was known within socialite settings, but as a researcher attempting to access her biographical information years later, it can be difficult. It causes a discontinuity of identity for women artists, making it difficult for anyone trying to establish a clear path for any individual woman artist.

Sophie Pemberton painted with oils and watercolors. Pemberton painted both landscapes and portraits of people and places in which she was familiar, family, friends, acquaintances, or complete strangers. Little Boy Blue is oil on canvas painting. The height is 76.2 cm and the width is 51 cm. The date it was created was 1897. The subject matter is a young boy.
Subjects posed while Pemberton painted their portraits. Pemberton painted them so they appear relaxed caught in a casual moment. The boy is dressed in dark, plain clothing in contrast to the background, which is serene and lovely, like a garden or meadow. The boy appears to represent the “Romantic childhood” movement that had caught on after the mid 18th century. During this period, female and male children were represented as feminine figures and were primarily painted by women painters. In part because woman painters had what was believed a natural talent for depicting children, but also because this subject matter was all that was allowed to aspiring women painters. Commercially, women were pressured to depict children for a number of reasons. Mother-child subject matter was safe. Children needed to be shown as light and innocent, there is not room for controversially or passion. This was limiting to women painters because they could not take any chances or experiment with their subject matter. Around the 1900’s the audience for the innocent child became larger, giving women artists a huge incentive to reproduce this subject matter. This was in part, driven by an expanding female market since women were the main consumers of all household products. The problem was that the art establishment looked down on this type of subject matter. As a result, the status of woman painters was considered lower then other predominately-male painters. It was a cycle that women painters could not escape. The primary employment that was offered to women painters was magazine work aimed at women and children. The more they concentrated on this subject matter, the lower their artistic status sank. Regardless, some women painters were able to make a living on this type of work and received favorable praise from critics and the public.

Not much is known about the boy in Pemberton’s Little Boy Blue, in fact, there is little information on the painting at all, but it is possibly based on the nursery rhyme of the same name, Little Boy Blue.

“Little Boy Blue come blow your horn,
The sheep's in the meadow the cow's in the corn.
But where is the boy who looks after the sheep?
He's under a haystack fast asleep.
Will you wake him? No, not I - for if I do, he's sure to cry”

In the nursery rhyme, Little Boy Blue was a hayward, or hedge warden, an occupation in the Middle Ages (and the probable origins of the nursery rhyme). The hayward was chosen by the lord of the manor or elected by the villagers to lead sowing and harvesting and to impound stray cattle. The hayward carried a horn, which he blew to warn that cattle were invading the crops. The boy in Pemberton’s painting is dressed in what appears to be peasant clothing and he is depicted outside in what could be a garden or meadow. The style of jacket that had one button that fastened at the top was very popular with peasant boys during the Victorian Era. The bag over his shoulder might have really been a school bag when Pemberton painted the boy, but could represent the bag used by the hayward to hold his horn. The original nursery rhyme did not carry any moral objective or lesson. The most common belief is that the origins of this nursery is not based on actual events or people in history but is merely a reflection of peaceful country life, which would appeal to the imagination of a young child. This simple explanation could hold true for Pemberton’s boy blue as well. He may have been a local boy who simply posed in a Paris garden. Pemberton consistently painted realistically, keeping her subject in their natural environment; farther adding to the realism of her subjects.

Pemberton’s painting also shares the same name as the oil painting “The Blue Boy” (c. 1770) by Thomas Gainsborough. Besides the medium, oil, and subject matter, a boy, there is little else that the two have in common. Gainsborough’s blue boy is dressed in costume and looks the viewer confidently in the eye, depicting in manner and attitude his future social status. Pemberton’s blue boy is relaxed in demeanor and dress without a hint of arrogance. The titles also differ in meaning, Gainsborough’s boy is dressed in head to toe blue, hence the title “The Blue Boy”. Pemberton uses no actual blue in her painting at all, suggesting the title name has a different significance.
Little Boy Blue is currently at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, British Columbia. It was a gift of the artist.

Unsettling encounters: First Nations imagery in the art of Emily Carr
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Pictures of Innocence, The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood,
Anne Higonnet


(* newspaper citation)