John Singer Sargent was an American-born expatriate painter most active in Europe. He is often regarded as the leading portraitist of his generation. The artist was also associated with the Impressionist movement, expressed mainly in landscape paintings and informal studies, especially during his later career.
John Singer Sargent was a descendant of the colonel of militia, jurist, and distinguished landowner Epes Sargent. The Sargent family is among one of the first colonial settlers of Massachusetts.
Before John’s birth, his parents had a daughter who died when she was about two years old. The tragedy took a heavy toll on his mother’s emotional health, so his parents decided to recover in Europe for an extended period. Although they were mainly based in Paris, they traveled throughout Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. The couple maintained a nomadic lifestyle until the end of their lives.
John Sargent was born on January 12, 1856, in Florence, Italy, a year before his sister Mary. After her birth, the Sargent family decided to remain abroad. The family lived a quiet life off of a modest inheritance and savings.
Young John Sargent was homeschooled on basic subjects by his father. However, the young artist was a boisterous child, more interested in being outdoors rather than studying. His mother was certain that their nomadic life, visiting churches and museums across Europe would give young John an appropriate education.
His mother’s support was probably one of the pivotal elements of Sargent’s early artistic development. Sargent was encouraged by his mother to draw during their expeditions and was given sketchbooks to do so. During this period, Sargent executed detailed landscapes and passionately copied pictures of ships from illustrated books.
By thirteen years old, the young artist had already developed good sketching qualities and an excellent eye to perceive elements. Also, by that time, Sargent had watercolor lessons under the German landscape painter Carl Welsch.
Although lacking any formal education, Sargent became a highly literate individual, becoming knowledgeable in literature, art, and music. Becoming highly cultured was possible mainly due to his family’s nomadic life, which enabled Sargent to observe artworks made by the Old Masters of the past first-hand. He became especially fond of the works by Titian, Tintoretto, and Michelangelo.
Following his return to Paris, Sargent began to take art lessons under the distinguished portraitist Carolus-Duran, who became a key influence on Sargent, especially between 1874 and 78. By 1874, Sargent passed the demanding admission exam of the respected Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
At the academy, the artist took drawing lessons, which included perspective and anatomy, and was even awarded a silver prize during his period at the institution. He also frequently visited museums to study the art of the old masters and draw. Sargent painted in a shared with the American landscape artist James Carroll Beckwith. During this period, the artist also took lessons under the famous French painter Léon Bonnat.
Carolus-Duran’s teaching methods were quite progressive at the time. Instead of focusing on careful drawing and underpainting the canvas, he encouraged his alumni to work directly with the paint on the surface with a loaded brush, a technique inspired by Diego Velazquez.
This method enabled a more spontaneous process, not constricted by any previous underdrawing. Through his friendship with French painter Paul Cesar Helleu, Sargent made acquaintances with many prominent artists at the time, such as Auguste Rodin, Edgar Degas, James Abbott Mcneill Whistler, and Claude Monet.
Sargent’s main interest during his early career was landscape painting, proved by his extensive sketches depicting seascapes, buildings, and mountains. Soon, inspired by Carolus-Duran’s prowess in portrait painting, Sargent took on portraiture as well.
Sargent’s earliest significant portrait was in 1877, depicting his friend Fanny Watts, which granted his first admission at the Paris Salon. In his second entry at the Salon, Sargent exhibited Oyster Gatherers of Cancale, a painting with Impressionistic qualities.
By the age of 23, the artist painted a portrait of his teacher Carolus-Duran, which was met with an immediate public appraisal. This artwork was a hint of what direction Sargent’s production was taking.
Following his departure from Carolus-Duran’s atelier, Sargent went to Spain, where he became especially enamored with the country’s dance and music. Subsequent trips to Italy resulted in several sketches portraying ordinary scenes in Venice’s streets, accurately capturing people’s posture and gestures that proved useful in his later portraits.
Returning to Paris, Sargent began to receive several portrait commissions and established himself as a fashionable artist. Between commissions, the artist portrayed his friends and colleagues. At some point, he became the mentor of his friend Emil Fuchs.
During the early 1880s, Sargent exhibited many full-length portraits of prominent women and continued to receive positive reviews. One of the main attributes of the artist’s portraits’ was to capture his sitter’s personalities accurately. Some of Sargent’s great admirers would state that his portraits were only matched by Velazquez’s, whose artworks were also a great inspiration on the first. One of the most evidently shows his influence by Velazquez is his The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, resembling the latter’s Las Meninas.
At the Salon of 1884, Sargent exhibited his portrait of Madame X. What today is considered one of the artist’s masterpieces, at the time was a source of harsh criticism towards Sargent and was most likely the main reason he would later move to London.
The first version of said painting had a minor detail different than the later “fixed” version. Both depicted the sitter’s long neck, snow-white skin, and assertively coked head. However, the sitter was painted with one of her dress straps off-the-shoulder, which resulted in a sensual and daring undertone.
These elements revolted both the critics and the public. Sargent would later paint the dress strap in the right position in order to reduce the furor. However, the damage had been done, significantly halting his incoming commissions.
In 1885, when visiting Claude Monet in Giverny, Sargent executed one of his most Impressionistic paintings, Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood. The painting depicts his French colleague, accompanied by his new bride, painting outdoors. Following this visit, Sargent began to frequent the Impressionist exhibitions and to increasingly paint outdoors, as was the manner of the Impressionists.
In 1886, Sargent officially moved to London. At first, English critics received the artist coldly, questioning his, according to them, “Frenchified” handling of paint. However, this would change due to Mrs. Henry White, one of his sitters, who put in a good word for the artist, and he began to gain appraisal from patrons and critics alike. Sargent would spend much of his time painting outdoors throughout the English countryside.
In the following year, the artist achieved his earliest major success at the Royal Academy with his Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, a large scale painting executed on site. The distinguished Tate Gallery promptly acquired the artwork. Such success made Sargent a fashionable artist both in England and in the United States.
By the 1890s, his artwork was so valued he could charge up to five thousand dollars for a portrait, which by today’s standards, would be roughly valued at $130.000. Between 1887 and 1888, during a period in Boston and New York, Sargent executed over 20 significant commissions, including portraits of the famous Boston art patron Isabella Stewart Gardner.
By the turn of the century, Sargent achieved the pinnacle of his fame. However, he also began to get jaded of portrait painting and his patrons’ artistic restrictions. In 1907, the artist closed his studio and focused on painting watercolors, landscapes, and architectural studies.
Due to the emergence of Modernist movements in Europe, such as Cubism, Futurism, and Fauvism, Sargent’s artworks soon became out of fashion. Nonetheless, the artist continued to explore his artistic boundaries.
From 1916 to 1918, Sargent executed several landscapes throughout North America, as well as important portraits of President Woodrow Wilson and John D. Rockefeller. Upon returning to England in 1918, Sargent was promptly commissioned by Britain’s Ministry of Information as a war artist, depicting scenes of World War I in both watercolor and oil painting.
John Singer Sargent passed away in his sleep on April 14, 1925, in London.
The American artist, who created about 900 oil paintings, over 2000 watercolors, and an immeasurable amount of charcoal drawings and sketches, consolidated his name as one of the foremost American representatives of Impressionism. He is often regarded as the foremost portrait painter of his generation.
Sargent stated, “Cultivate an ever continuous power of observation. Wherever you are, be always ready to make slight notes of postures, groups, and incidents. Store up in the mind... a continuous stream of observations from which to make selections later. Above all things get abroad, see the sunlight and everything that is to be seen.”