Born in Florence, Italy, in 1856 to expatriate American parents, John Singer Sargent was descended from one of the oldest families in New England. His peripatetic childhood exposed him to the culture and art of many of the great cities of Europe and precluded any continuous formal education. He received artistic training in Florence and Paris, and settled in 1886 in England, where he died in 1925. Even though his life was quintessentially cosmopolitan, he considered himself thoroughly American, painting many American portraits, exhibiting his works in American cities and in the American sections of international expositions, and devoting decades to painting murals for installation in Boston and Cambridge; he even declined knighthood rather than renounce his American citizenship.
The collection of paintings, drawings, and watercolors by Sargent in the Metropolitan Museum—one of the three major repositories of his work in the United States—was acquired by commission, purchase, and gift. Among many generous donations, one gift—the single largest addition to this collection—is particularly noteworthy. In November 1949, Violet Ormond (Sargent's sister and a distant cousin of the then-director of the Metropolitan Museum, Francis Henry Taylor) determined to present the Metropolitan with two dozen oil paintings, about 120 watercolors, some 225 drawings, four sketchbooks, and rare lithographs by the artist. These works arrived several months later, greatly enlarging the collection.
This exhibition honors that incredible gift. Grouped chronologically and thematically, it includes early drawings from three remarkable sketchbooks from 1869 and 1870 that document Sargent's travels in Switzerland with his family and manifest his precocious talent. Several of Sargent's youthful copies after antiquities, and after old and modern masters such as Michelangelo and Jean-François Millet, are also on display.
Sargent's student years in Paris are represented by numerous sketches that document his curiosity and his eclectic interests. In 1879, Sargent began a period of extensive travel to study the Old Masters and to gather ideas for pictures. His trip to Spain and Morocco in 1879–80 is revealed by sketches of Spanish musicians and dancers, including studies related to his well-known 1882 painting El Jaleo (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) and by paintings of architectural vignettes such as Moorish Buildings on a Cloudy Day and Courtyard, Tetuan, Morocco. His early trips to Venice yielded views and figure studies such as the exquisite watercolor Young Woman in Black Skirt.
Impressionist canvasses painted in the English countryside, such as Reapers Resting in a Wheatfield (1885) and Two Girls with Parasols at Fladbury (1888) represent his early professional career, along with precise studies of flowers for his great painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–86; Tate Gallery, London), and spontaneous sketches of friends, family, and acquaintances, including Virginie Avegno Gautreau, whose infamous portrait he would complete in 1884. His enduring fascination with the exotic is suggested by his sketchbook of the Javanese dancers he saw performing at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889.
An important aspect of Sargent's professional work after 1890 is illustrated by a group of studies for his murals for the Boston Public Library, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Widener Library at Harvard University. His travels to the Western Front as an official war artist in 1918 were documented by a series of rarely exhibited watercolors that depict the devastated French countryside, soldiers engaged in quotidian activities, and camp life.
The exhibition culminates in Sargent's dazzling collection of watercolors purchased by the Metropolitan in 1915. These sheets record his enduring fascination with Venice (Giudecca) and his summer holidays in the Italian lake region (Sirmione), the Alps (Mountain Stream), and Spain (In the Generalife and The Escutcheon of Charles the V of Spain). Other lesser-known records of travel that Sargent made between 1890 and 1925 include brilliant, sometimes experimental watercolors that he created in North Africa and the Near East and during tours of the United States (including Florida and the Rocky Mountains). These watercolors are shown alongside Sargent's great oil paintings, including The Hermit, Bringing down Marble from the Quarries to Carrara, and Alpine Pool, among others.
The Metropolitan's holdings of Sargent's portraits may be viewed in Gallery 771 in The New American Wing.