John Singer Sargent was born January 12, 1856 in Florence,
Italy. At the Salon of 1884, he showed what is probably his best-known picture,
Madame X. He was disagreeably surprised when it caused a scandal. Discouraged by
his Parisian failure, he moved permanently to London. His work was too avant-garde
to appeal immediately to English taste. It was not until 1887 that critical
Artist John Singer Sargent was born January 12, 1856 to American parents living
in Florence, Italy. Although he spent most of his life in Europe, both of his
parents were raised in the United States and the artist considered himself to be an
American. His father, Fitzwilliam Sargent, was a physician who came from an early
colonial family and grew up in Philadelphia. His mother, Mary Newbold Singer,
married Sargent in 1850. While the couple were enamored of Europe and lived as
expatriates, they were initially sent there by tragic circumstances, taking a tour
as a means of escape following the tragic death of their first child. The Sargents
had originally intended to return to the United States, but instead became
John Singer Sargent began demonstrating his artistic talents at a young age, and
soon took up the study of painting in a formal setting. His first known enrollment
in art classes took place in Florence at the Accademia delle Belle Arti, in his
late teens. During the winter of 1873-74, Sargent honed his skills, convincing his
father that it was well worth encouraging his artistic pursuits. Father and son
traveled together to Paris in the spring of 1874 so that John Singer Sargent could
continue his studies in the art capital of Europe.
While in Paris, Sargent studied under a relatively young teacher named
Carolus-Duran, who was teaching his students to break free of the rigidity of the
old masters' style. Carolus-Duran's method emphasized skipping the step of making
detailed sketches and heading straight to the canvas with a paintbrush. Sargent
internalized these techniques; his later works would come to be recognized for
their immediacy, emotional depth and refined technique.
In May 1876, when Sargent was in his early twenties, he made his first trip to
the United States, accompanied by his mother and sister, Emily. The family visited
Philadelphia and Niagara Falls, among other places. Much like his mother, Sargent
found that he was intensely drawn to travel. When he got back to Europe, he kept
traveling, using his voyages as opportunities to study great works of art and try
his hand at portraying diverse locations. In Spain, Sargent admired and copied the
works of Diego Velásquez; in Venice, he cultivated an appreciation for its
picturesque canals, to which he would return many times. Travel scenes would form a
major element of his work.
Back in Paris, Sargent submitted a portrait of his teacher, Carolus-Duran, to
the Salon of 1879. It won him an honorable mention, and his reputation as a
portraitist was given a boost. Between the years of 1877 and 1882, Sargent
submitted many types of paintings to the Salon, but his portraits generally won the
most positive attention. In 1884, though, his reputation took a turn for the worse,
with the exhibition of his work Madame X. Because it defied many of the accepted
standards of the day, and was slightly risqué in its portrayal of a woman in a
low-cut, nearly sleeveless dress, it turned many of his admirers against him. The
mother of the woman who had sat for the portrait, Madame Gautreau (who was actually
American), even asked Sargent to remove it. Today, the painting is one of his most
celebrated and famous.
Rather than stay in a city in which public opinion had turned against him,
Sargent left Paris and began spending much of his time in England, making it his
permanent home in 1886. The country he had adopted had not quite adopted him,
though; the English were reluctant to sit for Sargent's portraits because of the
scandal of Madame X. Not wanting their own portraits to turn out the same way, they
refrained from giving him commissions.
Sargent was not discouraged. On a pair of trips to the United States in 1887 and
1890, he found that Americans were not averse to being painted by him, and many
members of American high society sat for his portraits. He often painted his
subjects as if they were caught in the middle of motion, with faces both highly
individualized and expressive.
The turning point for Sargent's career in England came when he showed his
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (painted 1885-86) at the London Royal Academy. The
piece, undeniably one of Sargent's masterpieces, incorporated Victorian themes and
a calculated impressionist influence that depicted two girls lighting lanterns
among flowers in spring. The English recognized the painting's greatness, and
members of the elite were soon lining up to commission their own likenesses.
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose was important, too, as an example the impact that
impressionism had had on Sargent's works. He had become acquainted with and learned
from both Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, masters of French impressionism. Sargent,
like Monet, was particularly fascinated with light, and became highly skilled at
portraying it. However, in contrast to the French painters' work, Sargent's
paintings remained fairly literal, retaining crisp forms and not dissolving
entirely into streaks of color.
Although his portraits were highly praised, Sargent eventually grew tired of
painting them - they took up a large amount of his time, and there seemed to
be no end to his new commissions. Sargent backed away from the portrait business
between 1907 and 1910 to leave himself time to focus on other projects, in
particular a set of murals for the Boston Public Library. The coming of World War I
also changed Sargent's subject matter, for a time. Visiting the Western Front at
the request of the British government, which had asked him to paint a scene
commemorating the war, Sargent created Gassed, an appropriately dark work, which
depicted soldiers enduring the deplorable conditions that marked life in the Great
Sargent was also commissioned to create murals in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
His creations span across the museum’s grand staircase and rotunda. Additionally,
his works can also be seen at Harvard University in its Widener Library - a
tribute to those who died in WWI.
As he left portraiture behind, Sargent increasingly turned to watercolor,
especially after 1903. His works in the medium were praised, so much so that he
managed to make a name for himself as a watercolorist in addition to a painter.
Sargent passed away in his sleep on April 15, 1925 at the age of 69. He left
behind a large body of work, including portraits, travel scenes, watercolors and
impressionistic masterpieces that have defined his reputation into the current
century; his works are still exhibited around the world. Although the artist and
his portrait sitters are all gone, his admirable skill has given future generations
a glimpse into the lives and characters of people long gone - certainly a gift
to future generations, and one that those future generations have so far recognized
Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife sold in 2004 for $US
8.8 million to Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn to be installed at his newest
casino, Wynn Las Vegas.
In December 2004, Group with Parasols (A Siesta) (1905) sold for $US
23.5 million, nearly double the Sotheby's estimate of $12 million. The previous
highest price for a Sargent painting was $US 11 million.