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.