John Singer Sargent: American Master

Portrait of Laurence Millet by John Singer Sargent Portrait of Laurence Millet by John Singer Sargent. Circa 1887

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is widely regarded as one of the most important painters of portraits in the history of art. Blending academic realism, impressionism, and a fluid painterly approach inspired by Old Masters such as Diego Velázquez, Sargent carved out a stylistic niche and captured his sitters with the utmost poise and sophistication. His name calls to mind images of Gilded Age beauties or aristocratic children in flowing gowns and formal dress, and he commanded a high price for his hugely popular work.

Given his immense talent, Sargent became the most sought-after portraitist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Aristocrats and socialites across the West commissioned works by Sargent, including Isabella Stewart Gardner, Theodore Roosevelt, Lady Evelyn Cavendish, Claude Monet, and other influential figures. Born to American parents in Italy, he possessed a unique European mentality for a painter that has nevertheless been claimed by the United States. Today, his impressive oeuvre is reflective of his long, multifaceted and international career.

Sargent photographed by James E. Purdy in 1903 Sargent photographed by James E. Purdy in 1903

An American in Italy

Sargent was born in 1856 in Florence; his father, a doctor, and his mother had left Philadelphia 16 months before his birth. Over the course of the next 14 years, his mother gave birth five times, ensuring that the family remained abroad in Europe, in spite of his father’s wish to return home. Of his four siblings, only one — Violet — lived to adulthood.

The Sargent family enjoyed a nomadic but middle-class existence in Europe, traveling from Florence to Nice to Rome while summering in the Alps. It was not until 1876 that John Singer Sargent first visited the United States. He was already 20 years of age, and he traveled with his mother and sister to see the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. He spent just four months in the United States and Canada before returning to his expatriate life abroad.

Miss Frances Sherborne Ridley Watts Miss Frances Sherborne Ridley Watts by John Singer Sargent. First Salon submission in 1877. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Artist on the Rise

Sargent entered the Parisian atelier of Carolus-Duran in 1874; he had studied briefly at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, but his father recognized the importance of Paris as an artistic center and moved him there to hone his craft. Carolus-Duran, a leading portraitist, was a youthful and stylish teacher to a number of American pupils. Though largely an Academic painter, he encouraged them to study artists who exercised a certain degree of artistic freedom throughout art history, including Frans Hals, Rembrandt van Rijn, Anthony van Dyck and Diego Velázquez. The Old Masters would have a lasting influence on Sargent’s style throughout his career, particularly the 17th-century Spanish painter Velázquez.

During his early years as an artist, he composed genre scenes in addition to his portraits, capturing the picturesque locales of Spain, Holland, and Venice on canvas. He also became familiar with the work of Claude Monet, whom he met at the second Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1876. Subsequently, some of his sun-drenched canvases took on a distinctly impressionistic style, though he never fully embraced the movement.

He began to exhibit at the Paris Salon in 1877 — and his career was officially launched.

Madame X by John Singer Sargent Madame X by John Singer Sargent. Painted 1883–1884. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The (In)Famous Madame X

Sargent's Parisian years were productive. He refined his techniques, became acquainted with leading artists, exhibited at the Salon and received noteworthy commissions. It would take a scandal to make the artist leave the city, and a scandal he got. In 1884 Sargent debuted his now highly praised Portrait of Madame X at the Paris Salon. In the full-length portrait, Sargent depicts socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau scantily clad in a sleeveless, form fitting ball gown, with one of the narrow straps having fallen off of the sitter's shoulder. This shocked the public to such an extent that Sargent later repainted the strap in its proper place upon Gautreau's shoulder.

John Singer Sargent in his studio with Portrait of Madame X John Singer Sargent in his studio with Portrait of Madame X, circa 1885

Madame X's state of dishabille, combined with the work's loose brushstrokes and unconventional profile composition, was simply too much for the Academic art world in Paris. While today the Portrait of Madame X is one of Sargent's most adored paintings and is considered a highlight of the Metropolitan Museum of Art where it resides, in 1884 it caused a scandal that forced Sargent to abandon the city for London. Though he would continue to travel extensively, England would remain his home for the rest of his life.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargen Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent. Circa 1885. Tate Britain

An English Respite

Before he left for England, Sargent began sending paintings to the Royal Academy to be exhibited, so the English elite were already familiar with his work. Still, they found his style too “French,” and initially withheld portrait commissions. Thus, Sargent retreated to the home of his close friend and fellow painter Frank Millet in Broadway, a small and charming rural village in Worcestershire.

Free from the formal portraits that had dominated his career, Sargent was able to embark on an important period of stylistic exploration. Perhaps the greatest masterwork to come from this period was his celebrated Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (Tate Britain, London), which he painted in the Millets’ garden. In fact, Sargent's original model for the work was Millet's five-year-old daughter, dark-haired Katherine, though she was later replaced by the blonde-haired daughters of the illustrator Frederick Barnard. Painted en plein air at dusk, the fairytale-like painting reveals Sargent’s experimentation with what was then a modern and wholly unique painting technique – a mix of the Impressionist and Academic styles.

Portrait Of Clementina Anstruther-Thomson By John Singer Sargent Portrait Of Clementina Anstruther-Thomson By John Singer Sargent. Circa 1889

A Sought-After Portraitist

After it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1887, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose helped to quell the doubts of English critics, and he was accepted into the fold of the London art world. While some of the British elite still balked throughout the 1880s at the idea of sitting for a Sargent portrait, he was exceedingly popular in the United States, which he visited often between 1887 and 1889.

Finally responding to Sargent’s popularity abroad, Londoners began to flock to Sargent for portraits during the 1890s; he captured close friends, fellow artists, businessmen, socialites and members of the aristocracy of canvas. While some portraits were done in his clients’ homes, he mostly used his studio, requiring eight to ten sittings per portrait. By the mid-1890s, he was in such high demand that he was painting upwards of three sitters each day. He was formally recognized by the British art establishment when, supported by Lord Leighton, he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1894.

By the end of the century, Sargent’s portraits were hanging in some of Britain’s grandest country houses, as well as the mansions of American magnates and public institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York. His role as the “Van Dyke de l’époque!” — as Auguste Rodin characterized him in 1902 — was solidified.

Portrait of Albert Vickers by John Singer Sargent Portrait of Albert Vickers by John Singer Sargent. Dated 1912.

From Portraits to Murals

After the turn of the century, Sargent grew tired of the demands of portrait painting. He railed against taking more commissions, claiming “...I abhor and abjure them and hope never to do another especially of the Upper Classes.” Instead of full-size portraits in oil, he instead began to take commissions for bust-length portraits in charcoal, which could be achieved in one short sitting rather than the eight or ten sittings a painted portrait might require.

Rather than portraits, Sargent turned his attention to public murals, earning a prestigious commission to paint murals for the Boston Public Library. The artist was tasked with creating images for the Special Collections Hall, a long and windowless corridor, and he was allowed the freedom to choose his subject. He settled on the Triumph of Religion, a theme that allowed him to explore his lifelong fascination with religious imagery and iconography. The decorative work was well suited to the painter, thanks to his cosmopolitan upbringing, Academic training in Florence and familiarity with traditional art.

Judgment - John Singer Sargent Judgment from the Triumph of Religion by John Singer Sargent. Painted 1903-1916. Boston Public Library.

Following his Boston Public Library commission, in 1916 Sargent agreed to decorate the elliptical dome of the rotunda in the New extension of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Upon completing the project in 1921, he embarked on one final mural in Boston, a modest commission in the staircase of the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University.

Upon completing the murals, Sargent is purported to have remarked to a friend, “Now the American things are done, and so, I suppose, I may die when I like.” He would, however, live for another four years in spite of his premonition. In 1925, shortly before he died, Sargent painted his final portrait, a canvas of Grace Curzon, Marchioness Curzon of Kedleston, which now resides in the Currier Museum of Art (New Hampshire).

A Lasting Legacy

This brief biography merely scratches the surface of Sargent’s accomplishments — he was, for instance, also a talented watercolorist and landscape painter. Following his death in 1925, his works temporarily fell out of favor as art critics turned to the popular modernist movement of the day. Yet, the 1980s saw a full revival of interest in Sargent’s full repertoire, and his portraits in particular. His virtuoso handling of paint and his glamorous subjects of the Belle Époque have captivated audiences ever since, achieving a new level of popularity that even exceeds the age in which they were made. Major retrospectives of his paintings have enjoyed record attendance, and his works are represented in important collections around the world.

Click here to view our current collection of works by John Singer Sargent.

References:
Hills, Patricia. John Singer Sargent. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1986.
Herdrich, Stephanie and Weinberg, H. Barbara. American Drawings and Watercolors in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: John Singer Sargent. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.

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