John Singer Sargent was elected to the New English Art Club in its founding year of 1886 and is one of the most famous artists of the Edwardian period.
He was an American expatriate artist, considered the ‘leading portrait painter of his generation’ for his evocations of Edwardian-era luxury. He created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolours, 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.
Born in Florence to American parents, he was trained in Paris before moving to London, living most of his life in Europe. He enjoyed international acclaim as a portrait painter. An early submission to the Paris Salon in the 1880s, his Portrait of Madame X, was intended to consolidate his position as a society painter in Paris, but instead resulted in scandal. During the next year following the scandal, Sargent departed for England where he continued a successful career as a portrait artist.
From the beginning, Sargent's work is 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.
Sargent began his art studies with the young French portraitist Carolus-Duran. Following a meteoric rise, the artist was noted for his bold technique and modern teaching methods; his influence would be pivotal to Sargent during the period from 1874 to 1878. In 1874 Sargent passed on his first attempt 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 favour 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.
This approach also permitted spontaneous flourishes of colour 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 colour 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.
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 skilful 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 to Paris, 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.
In the early 1880s, Sargent regularly exhibited portraits at the Salon, and these were mostly full-length portrayals of women, such as Madame Edouard Pailleron (1880) (done en plein-air) and Madame Ramón Subercaseaux (1881). He continued to receive positive critical notice.
Sargent's best portraits reveal the individuality and personality of the sitters; his most ardent admirers think he is matched in this only by Velázquez, who was one of Sargent's great influences. The Spanish master's spell is apparent in Sargent's The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, a haunting interior that echoes Velázquez's Las Meninas. As in many of his early portraits, Sargent confidently tries different approaches with each new challenge, here employing both unusual composition and lighting to striking effect. One of his most widely exhibited and best-loved works of the 1880s was The Lady with the Rose (1882), a portrait of Charlotte Burckhardt, a close friend and possible romantic attachment.
His most controversial work, Portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1884) is now considered one of his best works, and was the artist's personal favourite; he stated in 1915, "I suppose it is the best thing I have done." When unveiled in Paris at the 1884 Salon, it aroused such a negative reaction that it likely prompted Sargent's move to London. Sargent's self-confidence had led him to attempt a risqué experiment in portraiture—but this time it unexpectedly backfired.
It took well over a year to complete the painting. The first version of the portrait of Madame Gautreau, with the famously plunging neckline, white-powdered skin, and arrogantly cocked head, featured an intentionally suggestive off-the-shoulder dress strap, on her right side only, which made the overall effect more daring and sensual. Sargent repainted the strap to its expected over-the-shoulder position to try to dampen the furore, but the damage had been done. French commissions dried up and he told his friend Edmund Gosse in 1885 that he contemplated giving up painting for music or business..
Prior to the Madame X scandal of 1884, Sargent had painted exotic beauties such as Rosina Ferrara of Capri, and the Spanish expatriate model Carmela Bertagna, but the earlier pictures had not been intended for broad public reception. Sargent kept the painting prominently displayed in his London studio until he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916 after moving to the United States, and a few months after Gautreau's death.
Before arriving in England, Sargent began sending paintings for exhibition at the Royal Academy. These included the portraits of Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881), a flamboyant essay in red and his first full-length male portrait, and the more traditional Mrs Henry White (1883). The ensuing portrait commissions encouraged Sargent to complete his move to London in 1886. Notwithstanding the Madame X scandal, he had considered moving to London as early as 1882; he had been urged to do so repeatedly by his new friend, the novelist Henry James. In retrospect, his transfer to London may be seen to have been inevitable.
English critics were not warm at first, faulting Sargent for his "clever" "Frenchified" handling of paint. One reviewer seeing his portrait of Mrs Henry White described his technique as "hard" and "almost metallic" with "no taste in expression, air, or modelling." With help from Mrs White, however, Sargent soon gained the admiration of English patrons and critics. Henry James also gave the artist "a push to the best of my ability."
Sargent spent much time painting outdoors in the English countryside when not in his studio. On a visit to Monet at Giverny in 1885, Sargent painted one of his most Impressionistic portraits, of Monet at work painting outdoors with his new bride nearby. Sargent is usually not thought of as an Impressionist painter, but he sometimes used impressionistic techniques to great effect. His Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood is rendered in his own version of the Impressionist style. In the 1880s, he attended the Impressionist exhibitions, and he began to paint outdoors in the plein-air manner after that visit to Monet. Sargent purchased four Monet works for his personal collection during that time.
Sargent's first major success at the Royal Academy came in 1887, with the enthusiastic response to Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, a large piece, painted on site, of two young girls lighting lanterns in an English garden in Broadway in the Cotswolds. The painting was immediately purchased by the Tate Gallery.
His first trip to New York and Boston as a professional artist in 1887–88 produced over 20 important commissions, including portraits of Isabella Stewart Gardner, the famed Boston art patron. His portrait of Mrs Adrian Iselin, wife of a New York businessman, revealed her character in one of his most insightful works. In Boston, Sargent was honoured with his first solo exhibition, which presented 22 of his paintings. Here he became friends with painter Dennis Miller Bunker, who travelled to England in the summer of 1888 to paint with him en plein air, and is the subject of Sargent's 1888 painting Dennis Miller Bunker Painting at Calcot.
Back in London, Sargent was quickly busy again. His working methods were by then well-established, following many of the steps employed by other master portrait painters before him. After securing a commission through negotiations which he carried out, Sargent would visit the client's home to see where the painting was to hang. He would often review a client's wardrobe to pick suitable attire. Some portraits were done in the client's home, but more often in his studio, which was well-stocked with furniture and background materials he chose for proper effect. He usually required eight to ten sittings from his clients, although he would try to capture the face in one sitting. He usually kept up pleasant conversation and sometimes he would take a break and play the piano for his sitter. Sargent seldom used pencil or oil sketches, and instead laid down oil paint directly. Finally, he would select an appropriate frame.
Sargent had no assistants; he handled all the tasks, such as preparing his canvases, varnishing the painting, arranging for photography, shipping, and documentation. He commanded about $5,000 per portrait or about $130,000 in current dollars. Some American clients travelled to London at their own expense to have Sargent paint their portrait.
By 1900, Sargent was at the height of his fame. Although only in his forties, Sargent began to travel more and to devote relatively less time to portrait painting. His ‘An Interior in Venice’ (1900), a portrait of four members of the Curtis family in their elegant palatial home, Palazzo Barbaro, was a resounding success. But Whistler did not approve of the looseness of Sargent's brushwork, which he summed up as "smudge everywhere."
In 1907, at the age of fifty-one, Sargent officially closed his studio. Relieved, he stated, "Painting a portrait would be quite amusing if one were not forced to talk while working … What a nuisance having to entertain the sitter and to look happy when one feels wretched." In that same year, Sargent painted his modest and serious self-portrait, his last, for the celebrated self-portrait collection of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
As Sargent wearied of portraiture, he pursued architectural and landscapes subjects. During a visit to Rome in 1906, Sargent made an oil painting and several pencil sketches of the exterior staircase and balustrade in front of the Church of Saints Dominic and Sixtus, now the church of the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum. The double staircase built-in 1654 is the design of architect and sculptor Orazio Torriani (fl.1602–1657).
Sargent's fame was still considerable, and museums eagerly bought his works. That year he declined a knighthood and decided instead to keep his American citizenship. From 1907 on, Sargent largely forsook portrait painting and focused on landscapes. He made numerous visits to the United States in the last decade of his life, including a stay of two full years from 1915 to 1917. In April 1917, Sargent was visiting the Miami estate of James Deering and was invited to cruise the Florida Keys with James and his brother Charles Deering aboard James' yacht Nepenthe. Sargent was much more interested in the "mine of sketching" that was the estate, not at all interested in fishing, and made the cruise "reluctantly," doing some watercolour sketches.
By the time Sargent finished his portrait of John D. Rockefeller in 1917, most critics began to consign him to the masters of the past, "a brilliant ambassador between his patrons and posterity." Modernists treated him more harshly, considering him completely out of touch with the reality of American life and with emerging artistic trends including Cubism and Futurism. Sargent quietly accepted the criticism but refused to alter his negative opinions of modern art. He retorted, "Ingres, Raphael and El Greco, these are now my admirations, these are what I like." In 1925, shortly before he died, Sargent painted his last oil portrait, a canvas of Grace Curzon, Marchioness Curzon of Kedleston. The painting was purchased in 1936 by the Currier Museum of Art, where it is on display.
This is an edited version of Sargent's Wikipedia biography that can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Singer_Sargent
You can also view over 100 of his artworks on his ArtUK website page: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/search/actor:sargent-john-singer-185...
Featured image: Detail from 'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose' 1885–6, Presented to Tate by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1887
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