John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
John Singer Sargent was born in Florence on January 12, 1856, the eldest surviving child of American parents, Dr. Fitzwilliam Sargent and his wife Mary Newbold Singer. His father was a doctor who had practiced in Philadelphia, but the Sargents had traveled to Europe in 1854 and embarked on an expatriate existence, returning to America only for visits. Their other surviving children, Emily and Violet, were born in 1857 and 1870 respectively. Sargent had a cosmopolitan and itinerant childhood with winters spent in Nice, Rome or Florence, and summers in the Alps or cities and resorts like Pau and Biarritz: he was immersed in European art and culture and spoke French, Italian and German, in addition to English.
Sargent’s father had hoped that his only son might follow a career in the navy, but it soon became clear that he wanted to train as an artist. He studied briefly at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence, but in May 1874, when he was 18, went to Paris, where the best art education was to be had. He entered the independent atelier of the fashionable portrait painter Carolus-Duran and enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to study drawing from casts and from life. Carolus-Duran was a friend of Manet and of Monet, and was perceived by contemporaries to be allied to the modernist camp; he was concerned with direct, realistic painting and taught his students to work au premier coup (at the first touch), applying paint directly on the canvas with a loaded brush, a technique that encouraged a broad, painterly style. In 1877 Carolus-Duran invited Sargent to work with him on the commission for a ceiling decoration for the Luxembourg Palace. The finished ceiling, Gloria Mariae Medici, includes portraits of Carolus-Duran by Sargent and vice versa, and has been cleaned and installed in the Louvre. The ceiling project also led Carolus-Duran to agree to sit for Sargent, and Sargent exhibited a formal portrait of Carolus-Duran at the Salon in 1879, both an homage to his master and a statement of independence from him. Like Manet, Carolus-Duran had traveled to Spain and fallen under the aesthetic spell of Velázquez, an enthusiasm that Sargent absorbed and that informed much of his work. He made the journey to Spain himself in 1879 to copy works by Velázquez in the Prado and, the following year, he traveled to Holland, as many contemporary artists had done, going to Haarlem so that he could see firsthand the expressive brushwork and inflected surfaces of paintings by Frans Hals.
Sargent exhibited at the Salon in 1877, sending a careful balance of portraits and subject pictures and achieving critical attention and success quite remarkable for a young foreign painter. He was regarded as an innovator challenging the conventions of Salon taste and of traditional representation, without entirely overturning them. He was awarded an Honorable Mention in 1879 for his portrait of Carolus-Duran and a second class medal in 1881 for that of Madame Ramón Subercaseaux. His early subject pictures were inspired by travels to Brittany, Capri, Spain, North Africa, and Venice. His trip to Brittany in 1877 inspired Oyster Gatherers of Cançale, a luminous scene of fishing life in the spirit of the Barbizon School, which he exhibited at the Salon the following year—the first public display of a lifelong interest in landscape. In 1878, he painted A Capriote, a lyrical study of a young model entwined around the branch of an olive tree. In 1879, Spanish dance and music were celebrated in The Spanish Dance and the grand and theatrical El Jaleo; in Tangier the following year he painted his variation on an Orientalist theme, the enigmatic Fumée d’ambre gris. In Venice in 1880 and 1882 he produced a sequence of atmospheric pictures that portray Venetian life in a mood and style quite different from the genre scenes painted by his contemporaries. The experiments of the Venetian series and the influence of Velázquez reverberate in his evocative interior scene, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, a group portrait that is not quite a portrait but a profoundly unsentimental portrayal of children that is distinctly modern in feeling.
In 1883, Sargent had moved into his own studio, 41 boulevard Berthier and seemed to be establishing himself in Paris. During 1883 and in the early months of 1884 Sargent was preoccupied by his portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau (Madame X), an American woman living in Paris, who was notorious for her stunning and eccentric looks, and whom he had requested to paint. It was a painting in which he had invested a great deal, but its formal sophistication was little understood at the Salon of 1884, where it was the scandal of the season. Its largely hostile reception was a significant factor in his decision to leave Paris for London. Sargent had already been asked to paint members of the Vickers family in England and he had met the novelist Henry James. James was impressed by both the man and his work. He described him as “civilized to his fingertips” and was energetic in introducing him and promoting him in London society. His essay on the young Sargent for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, which was published in October 1887, is one of the most illuminating discussions of the artist’s early work.
Sargent moved decisively to London in 1886, taking Whistler’s old studio at 13 (later renumbered 33) Tite Street, but patronage, which had apparently declined in Paris, was slow to develop in England: his work was regarded as avant-garde and, in Sargent’s own words, “beastly French.” He had come from France, bringing with him a breath of the “new painting” (he became, appropriately, one of the founder members of the New English Art Club). He knew the work of the impressionists and had attended their exhibitions; he had bought paintings by Manet at his studio sale in 1884 and would acquire several paintings by Monet. In the absence of portrait commissions in England, Sargent devoted himself to landscape and to his own experiments with impressionism. His relationship with impressionism is a complex one. While many of his paintings show a preoccupation with the effects of natural light and deploy a high-keyed palette and broken brushwork, he never carried his experiments with light and color as far as the impressionists: he does not lay on his pigment in strokes of pure color, and his figures remain solidly defined.
Sargent spent the autumn months of 1885 and 1886 at Broadway in Worcestershire, with a group of Anglo-American artists and writers, including Frank Millet, Edwin Austin Abbey and Alfred Parsons, and the summers of 1887, 1888 and 1889 at Henley, Calcot, and Fladbury respectively. Between 1885 and 1889, he produced a significant corpus of open-air studies painted in the English countryside—landscapes, figure studies, river scenes, and still lifes. It was at Broadway that he painted his major English subject-picture, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, which was an astonishing success at the Royal Academy in 1887 and was acquired for the nation under the terms of the Chantrey Bequest. Like his great Salon subject picture El Jaleo; Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose was a singular venture: he painted nothing like it again.
Sargent’s first sustained success as a portrait painter came, not in England, but in America on two successive trips in 1887/88 and 1889/90. He traveled to New York in September 1887 (only the second time he had crossed the Atlantic) to paint the wife of the prominent banker and collector Henry G. Marquand at their summer home in Newport, Rhode Island. He was welcomed and lionized, especially in Boston, where he was given his first one man show at the St. Botolph Club in 1888, and where he already had friends: the artist Edward Boit, whose daughters he had painted, the banker Charles Fairchild, who had commissioned a portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and who would manage Sargent’s financial affairs, and the formidable Isabella Stewart Gardner, who was to build up one of the great American collections of European art, which she installed in a Venetian-inspired palace that still bears her name. His friendships with the architects Stanford White and Charles McKim led to several important portrait commissions, and were certainly behind his appointment in 1890 as a muralist for the new Boston Public Library, which they had designed.
The 1890s were dominated by portraiture and the murals. He became, in effect, the portraitist of an international elite. In America in 1890, he painted some forty portraits in nine months; in England, his portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw offered a synthesis of impressionism, aestheticism and realism at the Royal Academy of 1893 and, by the mid-1890s, he was in such demand that he was painting three sitters a day, with scarcely a pause between them. He was recognized by the establishment when, supported by Lord Leighton, he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1894. His portraits continued to command attention by their daringly oblique compositions and immediacy of characterization. In 1897, his flamboyant and fantastic Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children led Henry James to describe his “knock down insolence of talent.” The following year he painted portraits of the Bond Street dealer Asher Wertheimer and of his wife in celebration of their silver wedding anniversary. Wertheimer became Sargent’s friend and his greatest patron, commissioning a further ten portraits of his wife and children, and bequeathing all but two of them to the National Gallery in London (they are now at the Tate Gallery). By the turn of the century, he began to be approached by the aristocracy, whose forebears had been painted by Kneller, Lely, Reynolds, Lawrence and Van Dyck, next to whose portraits his own works would hang in some of Britain’s grandest country houses. In adapting his style to a new typology, he created images of Edwardian nobility, which have become definitive, like the attenuated and over-bred Lord Ribblesdale, and the young patrician, Lord Dalhousie, an embodiment of the jeunesse dorée.
In the early 1900s a pattern developed whereby he spent the summer and autumn of each year painting landscapes in Switzerland, Italy, and Spain. He would spend August in the Alps, before moving down to Italy or Spain. In the Alps he was usually accompanied by the family of his sister, Violet Ormond, by Mrs. Barnard and her daughters, Polly and Dorothy (who as children had posed in white dresses in Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose), and by a group of close friends, who frequently acted as his models. Around 1907, he attempted to give up both formal portraiture and the fashionable society that generated it. He shifted his emphasis to landscape and produced huge numbers of works in oil and watercolor: a series of Alpine figure studies, architectural paintings of parks and gardens, fountains and statues, scenes of local life, boats and animals, streams and waterfalls, rocks and boulders—with only a few of them ever exhibited or sold. He returned to Venice, the city he loved above all others, year after year, painting canals, palace facades and campos from different angles and under varying conditions of light. He was committed to his mural decorations and landscapes, but the claims of portraiture never entirely evaporated. He compromised by drawing charcoal portraits—he did between twenty and thirty a year—in the space of a sitting or two; and he painted portraits of close friends like Sybil Sassoon and Henry James.
He was in the Tyrol at the outbreak of World War I, which marked the end of his European travels. He spent two years in America (1916 - 1918), painting landscapes in Florida and the Canadian Rockies and installing murals in the Boston Public Library. He undertook a second Boston commission for the Museum of Fine Arts, and agreed to paint two famous Americans, John D. Rockefeller and President Woodrow Wilson. On his return to England, he accepted a commission to paint a major war picture, traveling to the western front as an official war artist where he conceived his late masterpiece, Gassed.
Sargent never married and had few close attachments outside his family and a close circle of friends. After his death, memorial exhibitions were held in Boston, London, and New York.
Biography by Elaine Kilmurray, author (with Richard Ormond) of John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).