John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was America's most technically brilliant portrait painter. His work profoundly influenced his generation.
Born on Jan. 20, 1856, in Florence, Italy, of American parents, John Singer Sargent spent the greater part of his life in Europe but made frequent short visits to the United States. His father was a doctor from Gloucester, Mass.; his mother, who came from Philadelphia, preferred Continental life and persuaded her husband to give up his medical practice. Sargent was a born artist, very precocious, and fortunate in having his mother's encouragement. At the age of 9 he was sketching animals at the Paris Zoo. In 1868-1869 he worked in the studio of Carl Welsch in Rome, then attended school in Florence and took courses at the Accademia delle Belle Arti.
In 1874 the family settled in Paris, and Sargent worked at the École des Beaux-Arts, but in October he entered the studio of Carolus-Duran, a skillful portrait painter. In 1876 Sargent made his first trip to America, to establish his American citizenship. In 1877 he exhibited a portrait of Miss Watts, his first appearance at the Paris Salon. After an early period of realism he went through an impressionist phase, as seen in the two versions of Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight (1879). His most brilliant early portrait was of Mrs. Charles Gifford Dyer (1880). The tragic beauty of the face shows the artist's intuitive faculties. The Pailleron Children (1880) shows great sophistication and an almost Jamesian sinisterness. His great early success, more liked by fellow artists than by critics, was the Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, shown at the Salon of 1883. Four little girls are placed asymmetrically in a composition as remarkable for its subtle balances as for its luminous effect.
Sargent's most daring and brilliant portrait, known as Madame X, was of Madame Gautreau, one of the most elegant and fashion-conscious beauties of Parisian society. He painted her standing, wearing an extremely lowcut evening gown, and he made effective use of the contrast of her white skin with the black dress. When the picture was shown at the Salon of 1884, the public as well as her family were shocked, and Sargent was forced to withdraw it. Largely because of this, he left Paris and established himself in London, where he remained for the rest of his life.
In the mid-1880s Sargent painted two portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson, both brilliant, spontaneous, and sensitive portrayals of this frail and talented man. In 1887 Sargent went to America to paint the Marquands and a stark and commanding portrait of the austere matriarch Mrs. Adrian Iselin. By 1890 he was so firmly established that all the peeresses and notables of England clamored for the privilege of having him do their portraits. In 1898 Asher Wertheimer, a famous London art dealer, commissioned him to paint all the members of his family. One of the finest of this group is the portrait of Mrs. Wertheimer, which is elegant and impervious but facile and penetrating. His portrait of the great beauty Lady Sassoon, dressed in the highest fashion, is sparkling and vivacious and a technical tour de force. Although he painted men less often than women, one of his most dashing achievements was of Lord Ribblesdale in riding costume. The Duchess of Devonshire, the Duchess of Sutherland, the Countess of Warwick, and dozens of others were all painted with the same facile elegance. He also did groups such as the Marlborough family, the Sitwell family, and the Wyndham sisters.
Some of Sargent's greatest accomplishments were in watercolor, which he undertook mostly during summer trips to the Tirol, Italy, and Spain. These works are transparent, luminous, and brilliantly executed. In 1890 he was commissioned to do murals for the Boston Public Library (completed in 1916), the finest of which is the series of prophets. In 1916 he executed murals for the rotunda of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He died in London on April 15, 1925.
Further Reading on John Singer Sargent
Biographies of Sargent include W. H. Downes, John S. Sargent (1925); Frederick A. Sweet, Sargent, Whistler and Mary Cassatt (1954); and Charles Merrill Mount, John Singer Sargent (1955). See also David McKibbin, Sargent's Boston (1956).
Additional Biography Sources
Fairbrother, Trevor J., John Singer Sargent, New York: Abrams, 1994.
Olson, Stanley, John Singer Sargent, his portrait, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.
Ratcliff, Carter, John Singer Sargent, New York: Abbeville Press, 1982.
Weinberg, H. Barbara (Helene Barbara), John Singer Sargent, New York: Rizzoli International: Distributed by St. Martin's Press, 1994.