Maurice Prendergast 1858 – 1924

Maurice Prendergast, was an American Post-Impressionist artist who worked in oil, watercolour, and monotype. He exhibited as a member of The Eight, though the delicacy of his compositions and mosaic-like beauty of his style differed from the artistic intentions and philosophy of the group.

Maurice Prendergast and his twin sister, Lucy, were born at their family’s subarctic trading post in the city of St. John’s, in Newfoundland, then a colony in British North America. After the trading post failed, the family moved to Boston. He grew up in the South End and was apprenticed as a youth to a commercial artist. This conditioned him from the start to the brightly coloured, flat patterning effects that characterized his mature work. He was also inspired by the example of Boston Impressionist Childe Hassam.

Prendergast studied in Paris from 1891 to 1895, at the Académie Colarossi with Gustave Courtois and Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant and at the Académie Julian. During one of his early stays in Paris, he met the Canadian painter James Morrice, who introduced him to English avant-garde artists Walter Sickert and Aubrey Beardsley, all ardent admirers of James McNeill Whistler. A further acquaintance with Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard placed him firmly in the Post-Impressionist camp. He also studied the work of Vincent van Gogh and Georges Seurat at retrospectives held in Paris in 1891 and 1892. Prendergast was additionally one of the first Americans to espouse the work of Paul Cézanne and to understand and utilize his expressive use of form and colour.

Prendergast returned to Boston in 1895 and worked mainly in watercolour and mono-typing. A trip to Venice in 1898 exposed him to the genre scenes of Vittore Carpaccio and encouraged him to experiment with even more complex and rhythmic arrangements. His inventive watercolours of Venice are among his most appreciated works today.

Prendergast exhibited at the Macbeth Galleries in 1908 with the short-lived association of artists known as “The Eight” because he supported their protest against the academic bias and restrictive exhibition policies of the powerful, conservative National Academy of Design. He believed in a “no jury, no prizes” openness that would allow independent or unconventional artists greater opportunities to find a wider, appreciative audience for their work. This controversial exhibition, which acquired legendary status in American art history, is seen as a seminal moment in the public response to Ashcan realism, as that form of gritty urban representational art was the style practiced by five of the participants (Henri, Sloan, Luks, Shinn, and Glackens), but Prendergast has nothing in common, in style or content, with that school of painting.

Prendergast was far more a Modernist than any of the other seven members of The Eight. His ties to The Eight did not necessarily help his reputation in the long run. He developed early in his career and continued throughout his life to elaborate a highly personal style, with boldly contrasting, jewel-like colours, and flattened, pattern-like forms rhythmically arranged on a canvas. Forms were radically simplified and presented in flat areas of bright, unmodulated colour. His paintings have been aptly described as tapestry-like or resembling mosaics.

Henry Ward Ranger 1858 – 1916

Henry Ward Ranger American artist, was born in western New York State. He was a prominent landscape and marine painter, an important Tonalist, and the leader of the Old Lyme Art Colony.

Henry Ward Ranger was born on January 29, 1858. As a young man he studied music, excelling on the piano and organ. Ranger grew up drawing and painting and received initial encouragement from his parents. After graduating from public school, he studied at Syracuse University for two years, where he studied art formally for the first time. While he worked in his father’s photographic business, he began painting watercolour landscapes, which were said to have surprisingly free brush work for someone who had not yet studied abroad.

In 1883, he married an Helen Jennings, a divorced actress with a son. The newly formed Ranger family moved to Europe, visiting Paris first, but then settling in Laren, Holland where he became active with the Hague School painters, Jozef Israëls, Anton Mauve and the Maris brothers. Ranger was rapidly adopted by the Dutch painters and he quickly adopted their subjects and way of working.

Ranger set up a New York studio in 1888, so he could paint landscapes there and cultivate American collectors. In 1892, he had a major exhibition of twenty-four paintings at Knoedler Galleries in New York, which received a positive review. He painted watercolours that were considered free and vibrant by critics like Arthur Hoeber. Once back in the United States, Ranger became one of the leaders of the “Tonal” school of painting, and it is he who was given credit for coming up with the name “Tonalist.”

An exhibition of his paintings at the Lotos Club in the mid-1890s institutionalized the style. In 1894, he had an exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery, the first firm to specialize in the works of American artists. This exhibition included many works that had been done on a sketching trip to Canada.

Ranger was the first member of the Florence Griswold circle in the Old Lyme Art Colony in Old Lyme, Connecticut. He first stayed at Florence Griswold’s boarding house in the summer of 1899, perhaps having heard about the area from several colleagues who had summered there and in nearby towns on the Connecticut coast in the 1890s. Inspired by the landscape’s resemblance to the Barbizon forest of France, the art colony was established under Ranger’s leadership in 1900.

Thomas Phillips 1770 – 1845

Thomas Phillips, was a leading English portrait and subject painter. He painted many of the great men of the day including scientists, artists, writers, poets and explorers.

Having learnt glass-painting in Birmingham under Francis Eginton, he visited London in 1790 with an introduction to Benjamin West, who found him employment on the painted-glass windows of St George’s Chapel at Windsor. In 1791 he became a student at the Royal Academy, where, in 1792 he exhibited a view of Windsor Castle.

After 1796, he concentrated on portrait-painting. However, the field was very crowded with the likes of John Hoppner, William Owen, Thomas Lawrence and Martin Archer Shee competing for business; consequently, from 1796 to 1800, his exhibited works were chiefly portraits of gentlemen and ladies, often nameless in the catalogue and of no great importance, historically speaking.

In 1804 he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, together with his rival, William Owen. In 1807 he sent to the Royal Academy the well-known portrait of William Blake, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London, which was engraved in line by Luigi Schiavonetti, and later etched by William Bell Scott.

His contributions to the Academy exhibition of 1809 included a portrait of Sir Joseph Banks (engraved by Niccolo Schiavonetti), and to that of 1814, two portraits of Lord Byron . In 1818 he exhibited a portrait of Sir Francis Chantrey,  and in 1819, one of the poet George Crabbe. In 1825 he was elected professor of painting at the Royal Academy, succeeding Henry Fuseli, and, in order to qualify himself for his duties, visited Italy and Rome.

Phillips also painted portraits of Walter Scott, Robert Southey, George Anthony Legh Keck (1830), Thomas Campbell (poet), Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Henry Hallam, Mary Somerville, Sir Edward Parry, Sir John Franklin, Dixon Denham, the African traveller, and Hugh Clapperton.

Besides these he painted two portraits of Sir David Wilkie, the Duke of York, Dean William Buckland, Sir Humphry Davy, Samuel Rogers, Michael Faraday, John Dalton, and a head of Napoleon I, painted in Paris in 1802, not from actual sittings, but with Empress Josephine’s consent, who afforded him opportunities of observing the First Consul while at dinner.

Phillips died at 8 George Street, Hanover Square, London, on 20 April 1845, and was interred in the burial-ground of St. John’s Wood chapel.



John Varley 1778 – 1842

John Varley, was an English watercolour painter and a close friend of William Blake. They collaborated in 1819–1820 on the book Visionary Heads, written by Varley and illustrated by Blake. He was the elder brother of a family of artists: Cornelius Varley, William Fleetwood Varley, and Elizabeth, who married the painter William Mulready.

Varley was born at the Old Blue Post Tavern, Hackney, on 17 August 1778. His father, Richard Varley, born at Epworth in Lincolnshire, had settled in London after the death of his first wife in Yorkshire. His parents discouraged his leanings towards art, and placed him under a silversmith. But on their death he was for a brief time employed by a portrait painter in Holborn and then, at the age of 15 or 16, he became a pupil of Joseph Charles Barrow who held an evening drawing school twice a week at 12 Furnival’s Inn Court, Holborn. It was Barrow who took Varley on a sketching tour to Peterborough from which he emerged as a professional painter. In 1798 he exhibited a highly regarded sketch of Peterborough Cathedral at the Royal Academy and became a regular exhibitor at the RA until the foundation of the Old Watercolour Society in 1805.

In 1799 he visited North Wales, and in its wild mountain scenery found the subjects best suited to his brush. He returned to the same district in 1800, and again in 1802, and the impressions then received powerfully influenced the whole course of his art.

As one of the founders of the Old Watercolour Society,  Varley exhibited largely there over 700 drawings. He also became a highly successful drawing master with pupils including Copley Fielding, David Cox, John Linnell and William Turner (artist) of Oxford. Despite his success, his growing family meant he was constantly in financial difficulties, “since he was both a hopeless businessman and by temperament something of a Micawber”.

Varley was particularly skilled at the laying of flat washes of watercolour which suited the placid, contemplative mood that he often sought to evoke. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica Eleventh Edition, “Varley’s landscapes are graceful and solemn in feeling, and simple and broad in treatment, being worked with a full brush and pure fresh transparent tints, usually without any admixture of body-colour. Though his works are rather mannered and conventional, they are well considered and excellent in composition. Some of his earlier water-colours, including his “Views of the Thames,” were painted upon the spot, and possess greater individuality than his later productions, which are mainly compositions of mountain and lake scenery, produced without direct reference to nature.”

He is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery, Kensington, London.


Samuel Prout 1783 – 1852

Samuel Prout was born at Plymouth, the fourth of fourteen children born to Samuel Prout Senior, a naval outfitter in the dockyard city, and Mary Cater. Attending Plymouth Grammar School he came under the influence of Headmaster Dr John Bidlake who encouraged the young Prout and Benjamin Robert Haydon in their artistic apprenticeship.

They spent whole summer days drawing the quiet cottages, rustic bridges and romantic watermills of the beautiful valleys of Devon. With John Britton, he made a journey through Cornwall to try his hand in furnishing sketches for Britton’s Beauties of England. In 1803 he moved to London, where he stayed until 1812.

In London, Prout saw new possibilities, and endeavoured to correct and improve his style by studying the works of the rising school of landscape. To earn a living, he painted marine pieces for Palser the print seller, took students, and published drawing books for learners. He was one of the first to use lithography.

It was not however until about 1818 that Prout discovered his niche. Happening time to make his first visit to the Continent, and to study the quaint streets and market-places of continental cities, he suddenly found himself in a new and enchanting province of art. His eye caught the picturesque features of the architecture, and his hand recorded them with skill. The composition of his drawings was exquisitely natural; their colour exhibited “the truest and happiest association in sun and shade”; the picturesque remnants of ancient architecture were rendered with the happiest breadth and largeness, with the heartiest perception and enjoyment of their time-worn ruggedness; and the solemnity of great cathedrals was brought out with striking effect.

He established his reputation with these street scenes, and gained praise from his erstwhile student John Ruskin. Until Prout, says Ruskin, excessive and clumsy artificiality characterized the picturesque: what ruins early artists drew “looked as if broken down on purpose; what weeds they put on seemed put on for ornament”. To Prout, therefore, goes credit for the creation of the essential characteristics lacking in earlier art, in particular “that feeling which results from the influence, among the noble lines of architecture, of the rent and the rust, the fissure, the lichen, and the weed, and from the writings upon the pages of ancient walls of the confused hieroglyphics of human history”.

Prout, in other words, does not unfeelingly depict signs of age and decay chiefly for the sake of interesting textures, but rather employs these textures and other characteristics of the picturesque to create deeply felt impressions of age nobly endured. Though they are often compared, neither Turner nor Prout were vulgar artists, and while Turner concentrated upon the infinite beauties of nature, Prout was more interested by the cityscape.

Prout was appointed the coveted title of ‘Painter in Water-Colours in Ordinary’ to King George IV in 1829, and afterwards to Queen Victoria. At the time of his death there was hardly a place in France, Germany, Italy (especially Venice) or the Netherlands where his face had not been seen searching for antique gables and sculptured pieces of stone. He died after a stroke at his home, 5 De Crespigny Terrace, Denmark Hill, London and was buried at West Norwood Cemetery.

Samuel Gillespie Prout followed in his father’s footsteps by also painting watercolours. Another member of the family, John Skinner Prout made a career for himself painting and writing books in Tasmania.



William Armstrong 1822 – 1914

William Armstrong was born in Dublin, Ireland. He studied art in Ireland, then completed an apprenticeship in England with the Midland Railway to become a railway engineer. He emigrated to Canada in 1851, settling in Toronto and began work with the railway. He found a market for his artwork with the illustrated news who covered the events in the colonies. His watercolours of local events and scenes were reproduced as monochrome wood engravings so they could be included in these weekly periodicals.

Armstrong marketed his skill as a draftsman as an asset to those who were interested in expanding Canada westward. Beginning in 1859, Armstrong made a number of trips west accompanying various survey expeditions. His drawings were used to report the activities of the expeditions as well as the terrain and human activity observed.

He won numerous prizes as an artist at provincial exhibitions, and his work was displayed at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855, and at the Dublin International Exhibition, 1865. He exhibited with the Ontario Society of Artists  and was a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts until 1887, when he resigned.

A number of his watercolour landscapes of the Great Lakes may be found in collections such as the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Thunder Bay Historical Museum. He painted the watercolour The Arrival of the Prince of Wales at Toronto which hangs in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. Armstrong depicted grim working conditions inside Victorian Toronto’s industrial plants in his pastel drawing Toronto Rolling Mills,  which forms part of the Toronto Public Library’s J. Ross Robertson Collection. His watercolour painting, Thunder Cape, Lake Superior, hangs in the National Archives of Canada.

In 1864 Armstrong began to teach drawing at the Toronto Normal School. He taught at the University of Toronto from 1872 to 1877. He retired in 1897 but continued teaching art from his home until his death. He died in Toronto on 9 June 1914.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834 – 1903

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, was an American artist, active during the American Gilded Age and based primarily in the United Kingdom. He was averse to sentimentality and moral allusion in painting. His famous signature for his paintings was in the shape of a stylized butterfly possessing a long stinger for a tail.

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, James lived the first three years of his life in a modest house at 243 Worthen Street in Lowell. Today, the house is a museum dedicated to Whistler.

In 1842, his father was employed to work on a railroad in Russia. After moving to St. Petersburg to join his father a year later, the young Whistler took private art lessons, then enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts at age eleven. The young artist followed the traditional curriculum of drawing from plaster casts and occasional live models, revelled in the atmosphere of art talk with older peers, and pleased his parents with a first-class mark in anatomy.

In 1847-48, his family spent some time in London with relatives, while his father stayed in Russia. Whistler’s brother-in-law Francis Haden, a physician who was also an artist, spurred his interest in art and photography. Haden took Whistler to visit collectors and to lectures, and gave him a watercolour set with instruction.

Whistler already was imagining an art career. He began to collect books on art and he studied other artists’ techniques. When his portrait was painted by Sir William Boxall in 1848, the young Whistler exclaimed that the portrait was “very much like me and a very fine picture. Mr. Boxall is a beautiful colourist…It is a beautiful creamy surface, and looks so rich.”

Whistler arrived in Paris in 1855, rented a studio in the Latin Quarter, and quickly adopted the life of a bohemian artist. Soon he had a French girlfriend, a dressmaker named Heloise. He studied traditional art methods for a short time at the Ecole Impériale and at the atelier of Marc Charles Gabriel Gleyre. The latter was a great advocate of the work of Ingres, and impressed Whistler with two principles that he used for the rest of his career: line is more important than colour and that black is the fundamental colour of tonal harmony.

In 1861, after returning to Paris for a time, Whistler painted his first famous work, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. The portrait of his mistress and business manager Joanna Hiffernan was created as a simple study in white; however, others saw it differently. The critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary thought the painting an allegory of a new bride’s lost innocence. Others linked it to Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, a popular novel of the time, or various other literary sources. In England, some considered it a painting in the Pre-Raphaelite manner.

In 1866, Whistler decided to visit Valparaíso, Chile, a journey that has puzzled scholars, although Whistler stated that he did it for political reasons. That journey  produced Whistler’s first three nocturnal paintings—which he termed “moonlights” and later re-titled as “nocturnes”—night scenes of the harbour painted with a blue or light green palette.

By 1871, Whistler returned to portraits and soon produced his most famous painting, the nearly monochromatic full-length figure entitled Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, but usually (and incorrectly) referred to as Whistler’s Mother. A model failed to appear one day, according to a letter from his mother, so Whistler turned to his mother and suggested that he do her portrait. In his typically slow and experimental way, at first he had her stand, but that proved too tiring so the famous seated pose was adopted. It took dozens of sittings to complete.

Whistler’s approach to portraiture in his late maturity was described by one of his sitters, Arthur J. Eddy, who posed for the artist in 1894:

He worked with great rapidity and long hours, but he used his colours thin and covered the canvas with innumerable coats of paint. The colours increased in depth and intensity as the work progressed. At first the entire figure was painted in greyish-brown tones, with very little flesh colour, the whole blending perfectly with the greyish-brown of the prepared canvas; then the entire background would be intensified a little; then the figure made a little stronger; then the background, and so on from day to day and week to week, and often from month to month…. And so the portrait would really grow, really develop as an entirety, very much as a negative under the action of the chemicals comes out gradually—light, shadows, and all from the very first faint indications to their full values. It was as if the portrait were hidden within the canvas and the master by passing his wands day after day over the surface evoked the image.

Whistler received a commission to do twelve etchings in Venice. He eagerly accepted the assignment, and arrived in the city with girlfriend Maud, taking rooms in a dilapidated palazzo they shared with other artists, including John Singer Sargent.  He wrote to a friend, “I have learned to know a Venice in Venice that the others never seem to have perceived, and which, if I bring back with me as I propose, will far more than compensate for all annoyances delays & vexations of spirit.”

The three-month assignment stretched to fourteen months. During this exceptionally productive period, Whistler finished over fifty etchings, several nocturnes, some watercolour’s, and over 100 pastels—illustrating both the moods of Venice and its fine architectural details.

During his life, he affected two generations of artists, in Europe and in the United States. Whistler had significant contact and exchanged ideas and ideals with Realist, Impressionist, and Symbolist painters. Famous protégés for a time included Walter Sickert and writer Oscar Wilde. His Tonalism had a profound effect on many American artists, including John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase and Willis Seaver Adams (whom he befriended in Venice). Another significant influence was upon Arthur Frank Mathews, whom Whistler met in Paris in the late 1890s. Mathews took Whistler’s Tonalism to San Francisco, spawning a broad use of that technique among turn-of-the-century California artists. As American critic Charles Caffin wrote in 1907:

He did better than attract a few followers and imitators; he influenced the whole world of art. Consciously, or unconsciously, his presence is felt in countless studios; his genius permeates modern artistic thought.

In the final seven years of his life, Whistler did some minimalist seascapes in watercolour and a final self-portrait in oil. He corresponded with his many friends and colleagues. Whistler founded an art school in 1898, but his poor health and infrequent appearances led to its closure in 1901. He died in London on July 17, 1903. He is buried in Chiswick Old Cemetery in west London, adjoining St Nicholas Church, Chiswick.


Georgia O’Keeffe 1887 – 1986

Georgia O’Keeffe, was an American artist. She was best known for her paintings of enlarged flowers, New York skyscrapers, and New Mexico landscapes. O’Keeffe has been recognized as the “Mother of American modernism”.

O’Keeffe was the second of seven children. She attended Town Hall School in Sun Prairie. By age ten she had decided to become an artist, and she and her sister received art instruction from local watercolourist Sara Mann.

O’Keeffe studied and ranked at the top of her class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1905 to 1906, studying with John Vanderpoel. Due to typhoid fever, she had to take a year off from her education. In 1907, she attended the Art Students League in New York City, where she studied under William Merritt Chase, Kenyon Cox and F. Luis Mora. In 1908, she won the League’s William Merritt Chase still-life prize for her oil painting Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot.

In 1908, O’Keeffe found out that she would not be able to finance her studies. Her father had gone bankrupt and her mother was seriously ill with tuberculosis. She also was not interested in creating a career as a painter based upon the mimetic tradition which had formed the basis of her art training. She took a job in Chicago as a commercial artist and worked there until 1910, when she returned to Virginia to recuperate from a case of the measles and later moved with her family to Charlottesville.

O’Keeffe began creating simplified images of natural things, such as leaves, flowers, and rocks. Inspired by Precisionism, The Green Apple, completed in 1922, depicts her notion of simple, meaningful life. O’Keeffe said that year, “it is only by selection, by elimination, and by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.” Blue and Green Music expresses O’Keeffe’s feelings about music through visual art, using bold and subtle colours.

O’Keeffe, most famous for her depiction of flowers, made about 200 flower paintings, which by the mid-1920s were large-scale depictions of flowers, as if seen through a magnifying lens, such as Oriental Poppies. In 1925, O’Keeffe began a series of paintings of the city skyscrapers and skyline. One of her most notable works, which demonstrates her skill at depicting the buildings in the Precisionist style, is the Radiator Building—Night, New York.

Due to exhaustion and poor health, she did not work from late 1932 until about the mid-1930s. She was a popular and reputed artist. She received a number of commissions and her works were exhibited in New York and other places. In 1936, she completed what would become one of her most well-known paintings, Summer Days, in 1936. It depicted a desert scene with a deer skull with vibrant wildflowers. Resembling Ram’s Head with Hollyhock, it depicted the skull floating above the horizon.

O’Keeffe became increasingly frail in her late 90s. She moved to Santa Fe in 1984, where she died on March 6, 1986 at the age of 98. Her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered, as she wished, on the land around Ghost Ranch.

Art Based Challenges – Sketching Challenge

Ever wanted to improve on your sketching skills? Well why not join in the latest mini challenge at Challenge Central?

Grab your pencils, pens, charcoal or pastels and join us for a sketching mini challenge. 12 specially selected images to help you improve your sketching skills, whether you are an accomplished artist or like me somewhat of a absolute beginner. There will be something in this challenge to put your skills to the test.

There is no pressure on you within this challenge to produce an exact copy of the reference photo, in fact you can choose to sketch only part of the photo if you so wish. The aim of the challenge is to boost your confidence when it comes to sketching and give you the opportunity to practice sketching/shading and composition skills.

So why not come along to Challenge Central and see what it is all about, registration is simple and just requires an email address and password. So why delay? Visit us today and make your mark on the art based challenges.

The challenge has now started and runs until 31st July. So you have plenty of time to join in and improve your sketching skills.

Once your sketch is complete be sure to upload it to the folder within the forums on Challenge Central.

John Singer Sargent 1856 – 1925

John Singer Sargent, was an American artist, considered the “leading portrait painter of his generation” for his evocations of Edwardian era luxury. During his career, he created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolours, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings. His oeuvre documents worldwide travel, from Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, the Middle East, Montana, Maine, and Florida.

His parents were American, but he was trained in Paris prior to moving to London. Sargent enjoyed international acclaim as a portrait painter, although not without controversy and some critical reservation; an early submission to the Paris Salon, his Portrait of Madame X, was intended to consolidate his position as a society painter, but it resulted in scandal instead.

An attempt to study at the Academy of Florence failed as the school was re-organizing at the time, so after returning to Paris from Florence, Sargent began his art studies with Carolus-Duran. The young French portrait artist, who had a meteoric rise, was noted for his bold technique and modern teaching methods, and his influence would be pivotal to Sargent during the period from 1874 to 1878.

Carolus-Duran’s atelier was progressive, dispensing with the traditional academic approach, which required careful drawing and underpainting, in favour of the alla prima method of working directly on the canvas with a loaded brush, derived from Diego Velázquez. It was an approach that relied on the proper placement of tones of paint.

Sargent’s early enthusiasm was for landscapes, not portraiture, as evidenced by his voluminous sketches full of mountains, seascapes, and buildings. Carolus-Duran’s expertise in portraiture finally influenced Sargent in that direction. Commissions for history paintings were still considered more prestigious, but were much harder to get. Portrait painting, on the other hand, was the best way of promoting an art career, getting exhibited in the Salon, and gaining commissions to earn a livelihood.

In the early 1880s Sargent regularly exhibited portraits at the Salon, and these were mostly full-length portrayals of women, such as Madame Edouard Pailleron (done en plein-air) and Madame Ramón Subercaseaux . He continued to receive positive critical notice. His most controversial work, Portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) is now considered one of his best works, and was the artist’s personal favourite; he stated in 1915, “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.”

When unveiled in Paris at the 1884 Salon, it aroused such a negative reaction that it likely prompted Sargent’s move to London. Sargent’s self-confidence had led him to attempt a risqué experiment in portraiture—but this time it unexpectedly back-fired.

Before arriving in England, Sargent began sending paintings for exhibition at the Royal Academy. These included the portraits of Dr Pozzi at Home , a flamboyant essay in red and his first full-length male portrait, and the more traditional Mrs. Henry White. The ensuing portrait commissions encouraged Sargent to complete his move to London in 1886. Notwithstanding the Madame X scandal, he had considered moving to London as early as 1882; he had been urged to do so repeatedly by his new friend, the novelist Henry James. In retrospect his transfer to London may be seen to have been inevitable.

Sargent spent much time painting outdoors in the English countryside when not in his studio. On a visit to Monet at Giverny in 1885, Sargent painted one of his most Impressionistic portraits, of Monet at work painting outdoors with his new bride nearby. Sargent is usually not thought of as an Impressionist painter, but he sometimes used impressionistic techniques to great effect.

Sargent had no assistants; he handled all the tasks, such as preparing his canvases, varnishing the painting, arranging for photography, shipping, and documentation. He commanded about $5,000 per portrait, or about $130,000 in current dollars. Sargent painted a series of three portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson. The second, Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife , was one of his best known. He also completed portraits of two U.S. presidents: Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

By 1900, Sargent was at the height of his fame. Cartoonist Max Beerbohm completed one of his seventeen caricatures of Sargent, making well-known to the public the artist’s paunchy physique. In 1907, at the age of fifty-one, Sargent officially closed his studio. Relieved, he stated, “Painting a portrait would be quite amusing if one were not forced to talk while working…What a nuisance having to entertain the sitter and to look happy when one feels wretched.”

As Sargent wearied of portraiture he pursued architectural and landscapes subjects . During a visit to Rome in 1906 Sargent made an oil painting and several pencil sketches of the exterior staircase and balustrade in front of the Church of Saints Dominic and Sixtus, now the church of the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum.

By the time Sargent finished his portrait of John D. Rockefeller in 1917, most critics began to consign him to the masters of the past, “a brilliant ambassador between his patrons and posterity.” Modernists treated him more harshly, considering him completely out of touch with the reality of American life and with emerging artistic trends including Cubism and Futurism. Sargent quietly accepted the criticism, but refused to alter his negative opinions of modern art. He retorted, “Ingres, Raphael and El Greco, these are now my admirations, these are what I like.”.

In 1925, soon before he died, Sargent painted his last oil portrait, a canvas of Grace Curzon, Marchioness Curzon of Kedleston. The painting was purchased in 1936 by the Currier Museum of Art, where it is on display. During Sargent’s long career, he painted more than 2,000 watercolour’s.  Although not generally accorded the critical respect given Winslow Homer, perhaps America’s greatest watercolourist, scholarship has revealed that Sargent was fluent in the entire range of opaque and transparent watercolour technique, including the methods used by Homer.