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John Singer Sargent

Artists We Admire.

John Singer SargentBorn in Florence in 1856 to expatriate American parents, John Sargent received his initial  formal art instruction in Rome in 1868, and sporadically attended the Accademia delle Belle Arti in the city of Florence between 1870 and 1873. In 1874 he was accepted at the Paris studio of the portrait painter Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, and the next year entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to study drawing. He began to exhibit at the Salon in 1877. Over the next few years several experiences had a huge effect upon Sargent’s artistic development: during a trip to Spain in 1879 he copied paintings by Velázquez at the Prado; in 1880 he visited Belgium and Holland, where he copied works by Frans Hals; and in 1881 he also met James McNeill Whistler.

During the 1870s and 1880s, Sargent painted landscape scenes, based in part on his travels to Spain and Venice, but it was his remarkable skills as a portraitist upon which his reputation rested. The scandal caused by Sargent’s ground breaking  portrait of Madame Gautreau at the Salon of 1884 precipitated his departure to London the following year. Back in England, Sargent’s style of working was seen as peculiarly French. In 1885 he joined Francis David Millet in the Worcestershire village of Broadway, where he began his masterpiece of English impressionism, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. By 1886, he had made London his permanent home. A year later, Sargent visited and worked with Monet at Giverny, and made his first professional trip to America, where the demand for his portraiture brought him considerable fame.

In 1897 he was elected an academician at the National Academy of Design, New York, and the Royal Academy of Art, London, and he was made a member of the Legion of Honor in France.

At the end of the Nineteenth century of the century Sargent was recognized as the most acclaimed international society portraitist of the Edwardian era, and his clientele included the most affluent, aristocratic, and fashionable people of his time. Sargent worried in later life at the limitations of portraiture, and around the turn of the century he worked increasingly at other subjects and in other mediums, particularly watercolor, in which he was extraordinarily gifted.

In the early 1880s Sargent regularly exhibited portraits at the Salon, and these were mostly full-length portrayals of women: Madame Edouard Pailleron in 1880, Madame Ramón Subercaseaux in 1881, and Lady with the Rose, 1882. He continued to receive positive critical notice.

John Singer Sargent

Sargent’s best portraits reveal the individuality and personality of the sitters; his most ardent admirers think he is matched in this only by Velázquez, who was one of Sargent’s great influences. The Spanish master’s spell is apparent in Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, a haunting interior which echoes Velázquez’ Las Meninas. Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X, done in 1884, is now considered one of his best works, and was the artist’s personal favorite; eventually Sargent sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, at the time it was unveiled in Paris at the 1884 Salon, it aroused such a negative reaction that it prompted Sargent to move to London. Prior to the Madame X  scandal of 1884, he had painted exotic beauties such as Rosina Ferrara of Capri, and the Spanish expatriate model, Carmela Bertagna, but the earlier pictures had not been intended for broad public reception.

John Singer Sargent

Before his arrival in England, Sargent began sending paintings for exhibition at the Royal Academy. These included the portraits of Dr. Pozzi at Home, 1881, a flamboyant essay in red, and the more traditional Mrs. Henry White, 1883. The ensuing portrait commissions encouraged Sargent to finalize his move to London in 1886. His first major success at the Royal Academy came in 1887, with the enthusiastic response to Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, a large piece, painted on site, of two young girls lighting lanterns in an English garden. The painting was immediately purchased by the Tate Gallery. In 1894 Sargent was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, and was made a full member three years later. In the 1890s he averaged fourteen portrait commissions per year, none more beautiful than the genteel Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892. As a portrait painter in the grand manner, Sargent’s success was unmatched; his subjects were at once ennobled and often possessed of nervous energy (Mrs. Hugh Hammersley, 1892). With little fear of contradiction, Sargent was referred to as ‘the Van Dyck of our times’.

John Singer Sargent

During the greater part of Sargent’s career, he created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings. From 1907 on Sargent forsook portrait painting and focused on landscapes in his later years; he also sculpted later in life. His oeuvre documents worldwide travel, from Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, Montana and Florida, and each destination offered pictorial treasure. As a concession to the insatiable demand of wealthy patrons for portraits, however, he continued to dash off rapid charcoal portrait sketches for them, which he called “Mugs”. Forty-six of these, spanning the years 1890-1916, were exhibited at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1916.

John Singer Sargent

Sargent is usually not thought of as an Impressionist painter, but he sometimes used impressionistic techniques to great effect, and his Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood is rendered in his own version of the impressionist style.

Although Sargent was an American expatriate, he returned to the United States many times, often to answer the demand for commissioned portraits. Many of his most important works are in museums in the U.S.; in 1909 he exhibited eighty-six watercolors in New York City, eighty-three of which were bought by the Brooklyn Museum. His mural decorations grace the Boston Public Library. For this commission, a series of oils on the theme of The Triumph of Religion that were attached to the walls of the library by means of marouflage, Sargent made numerous visits to the United States in the last decade of his life, including a stay of two full years from 1915-1917.

It is in some of his late works where one senses Sargent painting most purely for himself. His watercolors, often of landscapes documenting his travels (Santa Maria della Salute, 1904, Brooklyn Museum of Art), were executed with a joyful fluidity. In watercolors and oils he portrayed his friends and family dressed in Orientalist costume, relaxing in brightly lit landscapes that allowed for a more vivid palette and experimental handling than did his commissions (The Chess Game, 1906).

John Singer Sargent