John Singer Sargent - Biography and Legacy
Florence, Grand Duchy of Tuscany
Biography of John Singer Sargent
Sargent's family had strong roots in New England, in fact his father's family were among the earliest colonial settlers in Massachusetts. Leaving behind the family shipping business, Sargent's father Fitzwilliam moved to Philadelphia where he became an eye surgeon. In 1850, he married Mary Newbold Singer, the daughter of a successful Philadelphia merchant. Their first child, a daughter, was born the following year, and died in 1853. Distraught, the couple left the United States for an extended period of time. Largely based in Paris, they traveled throughout Western Europe, including Italy, Germany, and Switzerland.
John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Tuscany (before the Italian Risorgimento) in 1856. Though American, he didn't visit his native country until he was 20. Due to his family's nomadic lifestyle, he received little formal education and was tutored by his parents in languages, history, arithmetic, and music. He became fluent in Italian, German, and French. Fitzwilliam hoped his son would one day join the American Navy. Meanwhile, his mother, an aspiring artist herself, encouraged Sargent's early interest in painting and drawing. She apparently commented, "If we could afford to give him really good lessons, he would soon be quite a little artist." His parents arranged for watercolor lessons from a German landscape painter, Carl Welsch, living in Florence.
Fitzwilliam and Mary decided that Paris was the best environment in which to develop their son's talent. Sargent began training with the popular portrait artist, Charles Auguste Émile Carolus-Duran, in 1874. This Frenchman would have a major impact on the development of his technique and approach to painting over the next several years, encouraging his respect for Old Masters such as Anthony van Dyck, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Diego Velazquez, and encouraging his students not to rely on preparatory sketches or drawings when creating a portrait but instead, to begin straight away with the subject's face.
In 1874, Sargent passed the difficult entrance exam for the École des Beaux-Arts, France's leading art school and almost immediately attracted attention from fellow artists and figures important within the contemporary art world. The American impressionist painter J. Alden Weir met Sargent at this time and called him "one of the most talented fellows I have ever come across."
While attending the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Sargent became friends with a younger man who would also become a noted society portrait painter, Paul César Helleu, and through him met James McNeill Whistler, Claude Monet, Auguste Rodin (who Sargent painted in 1884), and Edgar Degas.
Sargent made his first visit to America in 1876 with his mother and younger sister Emily, taking part in the Centennial celebrations in Philadelphia and visiting Niagara Falls. He began exhibiting his work in the Paris Salons in 1877, and met with immediate critical and popular acclaim, using costumes and poses in a highly theatrical manner which gave his subjects a distinct, dramatic look. In 1879, he embarked on an extended period of travel to Holland, Spain, and Venice in order to deepen his acquaintance with the Old Masters.
When Sargent returned to Paris several portrait commissions were already waiting. He quickly established a reputation for capturing the unique qualities of his sitters and his full-length images of high-society women attracted a great deal of attention. On a personal note he became known amongst his friends and peers as someone who enjoyed the finer things in life. He had a hearty appetite, a portly frame, and was a heavy smoker as well as an urbane conversationalist though sometimes shy. In 1884 his Portrait of Madame X caused a scandal, prompting his move to London soon thereafter. Many portrait commissions were waiting upon his arrival in 1886, as he had earlier on, sent several paintings for exhibition at London's Royal Academy. The British critics that appraised his work cooly at first eventually warmed up to him and he would remain in London for the remainder of his life.
In 1885 and 1886, partly inspired by his friendship with the Impressionist Claude Monet, Sargent began experimenting with painting en plein air (painting outdoors to reproduce time-specific visual conditions). Some of this work was done in Monet's company, during visits to the French artist's home in Giverny. Sargent also practiced open-air painting in the country village of Broadway located in the Cotswolds region of England. There he produced the work that would be his first major success in England: Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1887). This image depicts two girls lighting lanterns in a vibrant English garden. The painting was shown at the British Academy and immediately acquired by the Tate Gallery. The warm reception of the work brought Sargent more British and American patrons. By the 1890s Sargent was so popular that he was able to charge $5,000 for a portrait, the equivalent of roughly $130,000 today and was frequently invited to the United States for commissions.
During the 1880s and 1890s, Sargent developed a warm friendship with the writer Henry James, a fellow American expatriate in London. The two men had much in common, both highly discreet about their romantic affairs (possibly due to a lack of interest in women), remarkably hardworking and prolific, and deeply interested in the complex workings of high society. The figures most likely to be painted by Sargent were precisely those about whom James wrote. In 1913, novelist Edith Wharton commissioned Sargent to paint James. Though James was pleased with the final product, both Wharton and Sargent were unhappy with the portrait.
Sargent was at the height of his fame around the turn of the century, but had begun to grow weary of portraiture and the restrictions of painting for patrons. In 1907 he closed his studio and turned his artistic attention to landscapes, watercolor, and architectural studies. In addition, during this period he created a number of murals for the Boston Public Library (along with the painter and illustrator Edwin Austin Abbey), the Boston Museum of Fine Art, and Harvard University's Widener Library.
The emergence of Fauvism, Futurism, and Cubism throughout Europe and America led many critics to view Sargent's work as old fashioned and out of touch. Nevertheless, he continued to challenge himself artistically and, between 1916 and 1918, painted landscapes throughout North America as well as major portraits of John D. Rockefeller and Woodrow Wilson. Upon returning to England in 1918 he was commissioned as a war artist by Britain's Ministry of Information, and went on to depict scenes of the First World War in both oil and watercolor. In 1922 he joined the artists Walter Leighton Clark and Edmund Greacen in founding an art gallery and school in New York. He returned to England in 1925 and died in his sleep from a heart ailment at the age of 69.
The Legacy of John Singer Sargent
Considered the leading portrait painter of his generation, if not American art history, Sargent created over two thousand watercolors, nine hundred oil paintings, and a staggering number of works on paper. Although his work fell out of critical favor during the height of modernism, interest in his contribution has continuously grown since the 1950s and 1960s.
Sargent's impact upon the art world is difficult to overstate and can be seen, for example, in the aristocratic portraits of his friend Emil Fuchs, the works of contemporary British portrait artist Isabella Watling, and the early portraits of the American modernist painter Archibald Motley. Andy Warhol, whose works reflect the glamour of Sargent's best-known portraits if not a direct homage to his technique, commented that Sargent "made everybody look glamorous. Taller. Thinner." In 2014, Sargent's work inspired a New York exhibition, titled "Sargent's Daughters," in which 40 female artists created works influenced by his unique contribution to painting. This testament to his broad, enduring appeal included significant works such as Robin Williams' Mr. X (2014), which cites Sargent's most famous painting while playing with gender, and Jordan Casteel's Galen 1 (2014), which draws inspiration from the artist's late male nudes.