John Singer Sargent (January 12, 1856 - April 14, 1925) 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 watercolors, 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. From the beginning his work was characterized by remarkable technical facility, particularly in his ability to draw with a brush, which in later years inspired admiration as well as criticism for a supposed superficiality. His commissioned works were consistent with the grand manner of portraiture, while his informal studies and landscape paintings displayed a familiarity with Impressionism. In later life Sargent expressed ambivalence about the restrictions of formal portrait work, and devoted much of his energy to mural painting and working en plein air. He lived most of his life in Europe. Art historians generally ignored the society artists such as Sargent until the late 20th century.
Before Sargent's birth, his father, FitzWilliam (b. 1820 Gloucester, Massachusetts), was an eye surgeon at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia 1844–1854. After John's older sister died at the age of two, his mother, Mary (née Singer), suffered a breakdown, and the couple decided to go abroad to recover. They remained nomadic expatriates for the rest of their lives.Although based in Paris, Sargent's parents moved regularly with the seasons to the sea and the mountain resorts in France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. While Mary was pregnant, they stopped in Florence, Tuscany, because of a cholera epidemic. Sargent was born there in 1856. A year later, his sister Mary was born. After her birth, FitzWilliam reluctantly resigned his post in Philadelphia and accepted his wife's entreaties to remain abroad.They lived modestly on a small inheritance and savings, living a quiet life with their children. They generally avoided society and other Americans except for friends in the art world.Four more children were born abroad, of whom only two lived past childhood.
Fanny Watts, Sargent's childhood friend. The first painting at Paris Salon, 1877, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Although his father was a patient teacher of basic subjects, young Sargent was a rambunctious child, more interested in outdoor activities than his studies. As his father wrote home, "He is quite a close observer of animated nature."His mother was quite convinced that traveling around Europe, and visiting museums and churches, would give young Sargent a satisfactory education. Several attempts to have him formally schooled failed, owing mostly to their itinerant life. Sargent's mother was a fine amateur artist and his father was a skilled medical illustrator.Early on, she gave him sketchbooks and encouraged drawing excursions. Young Sargent worked with care on his drawings, and he enthusiastically copied images from The Illustrated London News of ships and made detailed sketches of landscapes.FitzWilliam had hoped that his son's interest in ships and the sea might lead him toward a naval career.
At thirteen, his mother reported that John "sketches quite nicely, & has a remarkably quick and correct eye. If we could afford to give him really good lessons, he would soon be quite a little artist."At the age of thirteen, he received some watercolor lessons from Carl Welsch, a German landscape painter.Although his education was far from complete, Sargent grew up to be a highly literate and cosmopolitan young man, accomplished in art, music, and literature.He was fluent in French, Italian, and German. At seventeen, Sargent was described as "willful, curious, determined and strong" (after his mother) yet shy, generous, and modest (after his father).He was well-acquainted with many of the great masters from first hand observation, as he wrote in 1874, "I have learned in Venice to admire Tintoretto immensely and to consider him perhaps second only to Michelangelo and Titian."
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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.
In 1874, on the first attempt, Sargent passed the rigorous exam required to gain admission to the École des Beaux-Arts, the premier art school in France. He took drawing classes, which included anatomy and perspective, and gained a silver prize. He also spent much time in self-study, drawing in museums and painting in a studio he shared with James Carroll Beckwith. He became both a valuable friend and Sargent's primary connection with the American artists abroad. Sargent also took some lessons from Léon Bonnat.
Carolus-Duran's atelier was progressive, dispensing with the traditional academic approach, which required careful drawing and underpainting, in favor 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.
An Out-of-Doors Study, 1889, depicting Paul César Helleu sketching with his wife Alice Guérin. The Brooklyn Museum, New York.
This approach also permitted spontaneous flourishes of color not bound to an under-drawing. It was markedly different from the traditional atelier of Jean-Léon Gérôme, where Americans Thomas Eakins and Julian Alden Weir had studied. Sargent was the star student in short order. Weir met Sargent in 1874 and noted that Sargent was "one of the most talented fellows I have ever come across; his drawings are like the old masters, and his color is equally fine."Sargent's excellent command of French and his superior talent made him both popular and admired. Through his friendship with Paul César Helleu, Sargent would meet giants of the art world, including Degas, Rodin, Monet, and Whistler.
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.
Sargent's first major portrait was of his friend Fanny Watts in 1877, and was also his first Salon admission. Its particularly well-executed pose drew attention. His second salon entry was the Oyster Gatherers of Cançale, an impressionistic painting of which he made two copies, one of which he sent back to the United States, and both received warm reviews.
El Jaleo (Spanish Dancer), c. 1879–82, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
In 1879, at the age of 23, Sargent painted a portrait of teacher Carolus-Duran; the virtuoso effort met with public approval, and announced the direction his mature work would take. Its showing at the Paris Salon was both a tribute to his teacher and an advertisement for portrait commissions. Of Sargent's early work, Henry James wrote that the artist offered "the slightly 'uncanny' spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn."
After leaving Carolus-Duran's atelier, Sargent visited Spain. There he studied the paintings of Velázquez with a passion, absorbing the master's technique, and in his travels gathered ideas for future works.He was entranced with Spanish music and dance. The trip also re-awakened his own talent for music (which was nearly equal to his artistic talent), and which found visual expression in his early masterpiece El Jaleo (1882). Music would continue to play a major part in his social life as well, as he was a skillful accompanist of both amateur and professional musicians. Sargent became a strong advocate for modern composers, especially Gabriel Fauré.Trips to Italy provided sketches and ideas for several Venetian street scenes genre paintings, which effectively captured gestures and postures he would find useful in later portraiture.
Upon his return, Sargent quickly received several portrait commissions. His career was launched. He immediately demonstrated the concentration and stamina that enabled him to paint with workman-like steadiness for the next twenty-five years. He filled in the gaps between commissions with many non-commissioned portraits of friends and colleagues. His fine manners, perfect French, and great skill made him a standout among the newer portraitists, and his fame quickly spread. He confidently set high prices and turned down unsatisfactory sitters.He mentored his friend Emil Fuchs who was learning to paint portraits in oils.