Recognized as the leading portraitist in England and the United States at the turn of the century, John Singer Sargent was acclaimed for his elegant and very stylish depictions of high society. Known for his technical ability, he shunned traditional academic precepts in favor of a modern approach towards technique, color and form, thereby making his own special contribution to the history of grand manner portraiture. A true cosmopolite, he was also a painter of plain air landscapes and genre scenes, drawing his subjects from such diverse locales as England, France, Italy and Switzerland. In so doing, Sargent also played a vital role in the history of British and American Impressionism.
Sargent was born in Florence in 1856. He was the first child of Dr. Fitzwilliam Sargent, a surgeon from an old New England family, and Mary Newbold Singer, the daughter of a Philadelphia merchant. His parents were among the many prosperous Americans who adopted an outcast-like lifestyle during the later nineteenth century. Indeed, Sargent’s family traveled constantly throughout the Continent and in England, a mode of living that enriched Sargent both culturally and socially. He ultimately became fluent in French, Italian and German, in addition to English.
Having developed an interest in drawing as a boy, Sargent received his earliest formal instruction in Rome in 1869, where he was taught by the German-American landscape painter Carl Welsch. Following this, he attended the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence during 1873-74.
In the spring of 1874, Sargent’s family moved to Paris, enabling him to continue his training there. He soon entered the studio of Charles-Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran. In contrast to most French academic painters, Carolus-Duran taught his students to paint directly on the canvas, capturing the essence of his subject through relaxed brushwork, a tonal palette and strong chiaroscuro. Although Sargent also spent four years studying drawing under Lon Bonnat at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, it was Carolus-Duran’s approach that would form the aesthetic basis of his style. Upon his teacher’s advice, Sargent also traveled to Spain and Holland to study the work of old master painters such as Diego Velzquez and Frans Hals, both of whom also employed skilled, fluid techniques. In 1876, Sargent made his first visit to the United States, claiming his American citizenship and visiting the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. One year later, he spent the summer in Cancale, in France’s Brittany region, where he painted outdoors, applying Carolus-Duran’s strategies to portrayals of fishing folk on sunlit beaches. His reputation in Paris was established in 1878 when his Oyster Gatherers of Cancale (1878; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) won an Honorable Mention at that year’s Salon. During the early 1880s, Sargent began making painting trips abroad, working in Venice in 1880 and 1882, where he painted street scenes and interiors notable for their brilliant play of light and shadow. He also embarked on what would be a lucrative career as a portraitist, producing such well known works as The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). His early commissions also included an image of Madame Pierre Gautreau. A renowned beauty and member of Parisian society, Madame Gautreau was known for her bold, unorthodox approach towards fashion. In her portrait, entitled “Madame X” (1884; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Sargent effectively captured her distinctive aura. However, his daring realism, coupled with fact that he portrayed a diamond shoulder strap falling off one of her shoulders, caused such an uproar that his career in France was seriously compromised.
As a result of the controversy surrounding “Madame X,” Sargent left Paris in 1886, settling permanently in London. He subsequently flourished in the English capital, becoming the leading portrait painter to the upper classes. Those who shared Sargent’s sense of refinement and sophistication, as well as his international viewpoint, were especially drawn to his fashionable French style. In addition to patronage from such prominent British families as the Wertheimers and the Marlboroughs, Sargent received an equal number of American commissions, many of them secured by artists and architects he had met during his student days in Paris, among them painters J. Carroll Beckwith and Julian Alden Weir and architect Stanford White. On a painting tour to America during 1887-1888, he portrayed members of notable families from Boston and New York, including Mrs. Jacob Wendell and Elizabeth Allen Marquand. Like their British counterparts, Sargent’s American patrons were drawn to his distinctive style. However, his solid New England ancestry also worked to his advantage, helping him to establish connections in upper class society. Interest in his work in Boston was given further impetus by a solo exhibition of his paintings at the St. Botolph Club in 1888. Two years later, Sargent became involved with the mural decorations for the Boston Public Library, a project that would occupy him until 1919. He went on to execute murals for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (1916-25) and for the Widener Library at Harvard University (1921-22).
At the same time that he was moving to the forefront of portraiture, Sargent was also forging a reputation as a painter of Impressionist landscapes and genre subjects. He spent the summer of 1885 in Broadway, a small village in Worcestershire, where he painted “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” (Tate Gallery, London), a depiction of two small girls in a flower garden. When debuted at the Royal Academy in May of 1887, the painting’s bright colors and decorative qualities created a major stir in the British art world. Members of the progressive New English Art Club were especially receptive to the work’s Impressionist qualities, and as a result, they hailed him as the leader of the so-called “dab and spot school.” When “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” was purchased by the Chantrey Bequest for the nation, Sargent’s reputation in England was given a further boost.
Sargent’s Impressionist inclinations were also sparked by his growing relationship with Claude Monet. In 1885, he made what would be the first of several visits to Monet’s home in Giverny. Indeed, Sargent is believed to have met the Frenchman at the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876. However, their friendship did not develop until the mid-1880s, when Sargent began to take a greater interest in painting outdoors. In his well-known canvases, “Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood” (1885; Tate Gallery, London) and “Claude Monet in his Bateau-Atelier” (1887; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), Sargent paid homage to his friend as well as to the very act of painting in the open air. His admiration for Monet and his artistic accomplishments is also revealed by the fact that between 1887 and 1891, Sargent purchased four of his paintings for his personal collection. He visited Monet in Giverny again in 1887, 1888, 1889 and 1891. Monet obviously admired Sargent’s work as well, for he is known to have hung several of Sargent’s paintings in his bedroom, along with other canvases by other artist-friends.
Sargent’s popularity in England reached its zenith during the mid-1890s. By this point, the artist had moved away from the sharp lighting of his early portrait work, adopting a softer chiaroscuro and buttery brushwork that enhanced the luxury and grandeur of his portraits. Although his elegance had already been accepted by his patrons, it received “official” recognition in 1897, when Sargent was elected an academician of both the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the National Academy of Design in New York.
Yet despite his overwhelming success as an international portraitist, Sargent’s artistic concerns eventually began to move in another direction. In 1906, he abandoned formal portraiture in order to concentrate on plain air landscapes and genre subjects, as well as his mural work. He spent the remainder of his career making extended painting trips to France, Italy, Switzerland and elsewhere, often accompanied by an entourage that included his sister Emily and her friend Eliza Wedgewood, and his good friend, the painter Wilfrid de Glehn and his wife, the painter Jane Emmet. Many of the works produced on these trips were executed in watercolor, a medium in which Sargent excelled.
John Singer Sargent died in London in 1925, the evening before he was scheduled to depart for another trip to Boston. One of America’s most celebrated painters, his work is represented in major public collections throughout England, the United States and elsewhere, including the Brooklyn Museum; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia; the Fogg Art Museum of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the Royal Portrait Gallery in London, to name only a few.