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John Singer Sargent was born in Florence – the capital of the Italian region of Tuscany – in January of 1857, and his sister Mary was born a year later. Although his birthplace was Europe, his parents, Fitzwilliam and Mary, were American and decided to leave the country to recover from the traumatizing death of their young daughter. The Sargent family initially intended to return to their home country, but their love for traveling made them nomads for the rest of their life – something that impacted the artist profoundly. Both Sargent and his younger sister were homeschooled, but the soon-to-be artist did not adapt to formal schooling, but despite this, he was brilliant, becoming fluent in German, French, and Italian at a young age. Sargent also featured an astonishing understanding of music, literature, and mostly art. His mother had a connection to art and believed that museums were as important as school.
Eventually, Sargent’s father took him from Florence to Paris to study art, and his outstanding work was quickly noticed by the professors at the École des Beaux-Arts. Mentored by Carolus Duran, the American painter promptly found the balance between following the Academic guidelines to Classic painting and finding his unique, bold style. In 1879 – five years after entering Duran’s studio – Sargent was awarded in the Paris Salon for the portrayal of his teacher in the painting Carolus-Duran. This recognition marked his artistic career at only twenty-three years of age and led him to become the leading portrait painters of his time.
By the 1880s, Sargent was taking portrait commissions from wealthy, influential patrons and was always featured in prestigious art exhibits. There was a particular socialite in which the artist was enchanted by and had a great desire to portray, called Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. In 1884, Sargent painted his beloved model in Madame X and proudly showed the artwork in the Paris Salon of the same year, causing great controversy and scandal. The public was so outraged by the risqué sensuality that Sargent almost quit painting altogether. Because of the Academic rejection, as well as the public’s, the American artist decided to travel to Giverny and met with Claude Monet in 1885.
The avant-guard style of the Impressionists inspired Sargent to deconstruct his formal techniques and work in a more loosely manner. Monet would take him to paint en plein air, to experience working in nature, and observe a landscape with its natural, fleeting lighting. Sargent began working with watercolor painting, experimenting with different techniques. By 1907, at the age of fifty-one, he became tired of the demanding traditional portrait paintings – especially of his bourgeois patrons – and decided to stop taking this kind of commissions altogether, focusing on traveling and painting his surroundings in intense watercolors. From the American Rocky Mountains to gondolas of Venice, all the way to the sunny beaches of Florida, Sargent continued his mother’s passion for traveling, producing breathtaking artworks of his experiences. He passed away in April of 1925 because of heart disease.