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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)

The family of John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) had deep roots in New England. His grandfather, Winthrop Sargent IV, descended from one of the oldest colonial families, had failed in the merchant-shipping business in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and had moved his family to Philadelphia. There, his son Fitzwilliam Sargent became a physician and in 1850 married Mary Newbold Singer, daughter of a successful local merchant. The couple left Philadelphia for Europe in late summer 1854, seeking a healthful climate and a distraction after the death a year earlier of their firstborn child. The Sargents’ stay in Europe was meant to be temporary, but they became expatriates, passing winters in Florence, Rome, or Nice and summers in the Alps or other cooler regions. Their son John was born in Florence in January 1856.

John Sargent was given little regular schooling. As a result of his “Baedeker education,” he learned Italian, French, and German. He studied geography, arithmetic, reading, and other disciplines under his father’s tutelage. He also became an accomplished pianist. His mother, an amateur artist, encouraged him to draw, and her wanderlust furnished him with subjects. He enrolled for his first-documented formal art training during the winter of 1873–74 at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. In spring 1874, Fitzwilliam Sargent resolved to nourish his son’s talent in Paris, which had become the world’s most powerful magnet for art students.

In May 1874, Sargent entered the teaching atelier of a youthful, stylish painter, Carolus-Duran, a leading portraitist in Third Republic France who encouraged his students to paint immediately (rather than make preliminary drawings), to exploit broad planes of viscous pigment, and to preserve the freshness of the sketch in completed works. He also exhorted them to study artists who demonstrated painterly freedom: Frans Hals and Rembrandt; Sir Anthony van Dyck and Sir Joshua Reynolds; and, above all others, the Spanish master Diego Velázquez. The young American moved close to his teacher stylistically and became his protégé. There is almost no work by Sargent, beginning with his successful submissions to the Paris Salons as early as 1877, that does not reflect the manner of Carolus-Duran or the old masters of the painterly tradition.

In May 1876, accompanied by his mother and his sister Emily, Sargent began his first trip to the United States, which would include visits to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and Niagara Falls. By autumn 1879, no longer attending classes regularly and concentrating on building his career, Sargent began a period of extensive travel to view works by the old masters and to gather ideas for pictures, visiting Spain, Holland, and Venice. Picturesque locales prompted Sargent to paint genre scenes, which he showed alongside his portraits as he built his reputation. Some of his sun-drenched canvases of the late 1870s bespeak the influence of Claude Monet, whom Sargent seems to have met in Paris as early as 1876 at the second Impressionist exhibition.

Although Sargent painted, showed, and won praise for both portraits and subject pictures at the Salons between 1877 and 1882, commissions for portraits increasingly demanded his attention and defined his reputation. Sargent’s best-known portrait, Madame X (16.53), which he undertook without a commission, enlisted a palette and brushwork derived from Velázquez; a profile view that recalls Titian; and an unmodulated treatment of the face and figure inspired by the style of Édouard Manet and Japanese prints. The picture’s novelty and quality notwithstanding, it was a succès de scandale in the 1884 Salon, provoking criticism for Sargent’s indifference to conventions of pose, modeling, and treatment of space, even twenty years after Manet’s pioneering efforts.

Having gained notoriety rather than fame, Sargent decided that London, where he had thought of settling as early as 1882, would be more hospitable than Paris. In spring 1886, he moved to England for the rest of his life. Fearful that Sargent might sacrifice characterization to a show of “French style,” which they associated with Madame X and, perforce, disliked, English patrons at first withheld commissions. With time and creative energy to spare, Sargent spent several summers engaged in Impressionist projects. These were nourished by his contact with Monet, whom he visited several times at Giverny, beginning in early summer 1885, and by the chance to work outdoors during the summers of 1885 and 1886 in the Cotswolds village of Broadway, Worcestershire.

Sargent’s most ambitious Broadway canvas was the ravishing Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (Tate Britain, London). The painting’s display at the Royal Academy in 1887 assuaged the doubts of English critics, and its acquisition for the British nation augured well for his career in London. Although English patrons still hesitated to sit for Sargent during the late 1880s, Americans were eager to do so during his visits to the United States between 1887 and 1889. Reassured by the conspicuous quality of Sargent’s portraits, British patrons finally responded with numerous commissions during the 1890s. While his subjects included businessmen and their families, artists, and performers, Sargent flourished particularly as a purveyor of likenesses to the English aristocracy. He maintained a dialogue with tradition, creating grand-manner pendants to family heirlooms by Van Dyck, Reynolds, and others. American patrons also continued to call upon Sargent’s skills.

After the turn of the century, Sargent grew tired of the demands of portrait painting. He was constantly preoccupied with mural paintings for the Boston Public Library, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University, for which he had received a series of commissions beginning in 1890. Travel studies in watercolor also came to occupy more of his time and became a new source of critical and financial support. Beginning in 1903, he showed such pictures to acclaim in London and New York, stimulating a great demand for them. Sargent engineered his career so astutely that by 1907, when he pledged not to accept any more portrait commissions, he had established a solid reputation as a watercolorist.