John Singer Sargent, the son of an American doctor, was born in Florence in 1856. He studied painting in Italy and France and in 1884 caused a sensation at the Paris Salon with his painting of Madame Gautreau. Exhibited as Madame X, people complained that the painting was provocatively erotic. The scandal persuaded Sargent to move to England and over the next few years established himself as the country's leading portrait painter. This included portraits of Joseph Chamberlain (1896), Frank Swettenham (1904) and Henry James (1913). Sargent made several visits to the USA where as well as portraits he worked on a series of decorative paintings for public buildings such as the Boston Public Library (1890) and the Museum of Fine Arts (1916).
In 1879, Sargent painted a portrait of Carolus-Duran, the virtuoso effort met with public approval, and announced the direction his mature work would take. Its showing at the Paris Salon was both a tribute to his teacher and an advertisement for portrait commissions. Of Sargent's early work, Henry James wrote that the artist offered 'the slightly "uncanny" spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn'.
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 Ramon Subercaseaux in 1881, and Lady with the Rose, 1882. He continued to receive positive critical notice.
Sargent's best portraits reveal the individuality and personality of the sitters, his most ardent admirers think he is matched in this only by Velazquez, 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 Velazquez' 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 Mme. 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.
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'.
Sargent painted a series of three portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson. The second, Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife (1885), was one of his best known. He also completed portraits of two U.S. presidents: Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
During the greater part of Sargent's career, he created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolours, 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.
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 watercolours 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 fluidness. In watercolours 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).
Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife sold in 2004 for $8.8 million to Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn to be installed at his newest casino, Wynn Las Vegas.
In December 2004, Group with Parasols (A Siesta) (1905) sold for $US 23.5 million, nearly double the Sotheby's estimate of $12 million. The previous highest price for a Sargent painting was $US 11 million.