Biography: John Singer Sargent
The foremost portraitist of his generation, John Singer Sargent, was well known for his depictions of members of high society in Paris, London, and New York.
The foremost portraitist of his generation, John Singer Sargent, was well known for his depictions of members of high society in Paris, London, and New York. He modernized a long-standing practice by employing vivid Impressionist brushstrokes and unconventional compositional techniques to capture his sitters' personalities and reputations. Alongside his friend Claude Monet, Sargent painted impressionistic landscapes while working outdoors, expanding his artistic interests beyond portraiture. He also painted several nude sketches that were probably intended to be personal works and official murals ordered by government officials in both the United States and the United Kingdom. (The Art Story, n.d.)
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The ancestors of John Singer Sargent were among the first colonists to come to Massachusetts. Sargent's father left the family shipping business to open an optometry practice in Philadelphia. He married Newbold Singer, a well-known Philadelphian merchant's daughter, in 1850. Their first child was born in 1851, but it didn't survive. Heartbroken, the couple left the country for an extended period.
They set out from Paris and traveled through Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and the rest of Western Europe. After becoming an American, he did not return to his birthplace until he was 20. He received little formal education due to his family's nomadic lifestyle, and his father taught him linguistics, history, math, and music. He picked up French, Italian, and German. Fitzwilliam dreamt of the day when his son or daughter would join the US Navy.
Sargent's mother, a passionate painter, encouraged his early love of drawing and painting. She is reported to have said, "He'd be a wonderful artist if we just arrange to give him excellent instruction." His parents arranged for German landscape painter Carl Welsch, who lives in Florence, to teach him watercolor techniques.
His parents thought that Paris was the ideal setting for their son to reach his full potential. In 1874, Sargent began taking portraiture classes with Charles Auguste Émile Carolus-Duran. This Frenchman profoundly impacts the development of his style and attitude toward art over the next two years, encouraging his students to begin working on a portrait with the subject's face right away rather than relying on preliminary sketches. Sargent gained quick recognition from other painters and significant figures in the contemporary art world after passing the challenging entrance exam for France's premier art school, the École des Beaux-Arts, in 1874.
Around this time, J. Alden Weir encountered Sargent and referred to him as "among the most creative people I have ever known." While attending the École des Beaux-Arts, Sargent had the opportunity to meet Claude Monet, James McNeill Whistler, Auguste Rodin, and Edgar Degas.
John Singer Sargent went on his first trip to the United States in 1876, traveling with his family to Niagara Falls and the Philadelphia Centennial celebrations. He started displaying his work in the Paris Salons in 1877, where he quickly won recognition for using highly theatrical poses and clothing that gave his figures a distinctive, dramatic appearance. (2022)
Several commissions for portraits were already waiting when Sargent arrived in Paris. The talented artist quickly gained a reputation for capturing the distinctive characteristics of his subjects, and his full-length paintings of wealthy women attracted a lot of interest. He developed a reputation among his friends and peers as a person who appreciated the finer things in life.
He smoked a lot, had a big appetite, and was occasionally shy. His Portrait of Madame X scandalized society in 1884, which led to his quick relocation to London. As he had earlier sent several paintings for exhibition at London's Royal Academy, many commissions for portraits were waiting for him when he arrived in 1886. He would spend the rest of his life in London after the British critics who initially viewed his work coolly warmed to him.
He created Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, which would become his first significant success in England (1887). In this picture, two young women are seen lighting lanterns in a colorful English garden. Following its exhibition at the British Academy, the painting was swiftly purchased by the Tate Gallery. Sargent received more American and British clients due to the positive response to his work.
By the 1890s, Sargent had achieved such a high level of recognition that he could charge $5,000 for a portrait, roughly $130,000 in today's dollars, and he was frequently invited to the United States for commissions. Sargent and Henry James, an American expatriate in London during the 1880s and 1890s, became close friends. The two men shared many traits: they were both extraordinarily hard workers and prolific, deeply interested in the intricate workings of high society, and highly discreet about their romantic affairs (possibly due to a lack of interest in women). The figures James wrote about were precisely the ones Sargent was most likely to paint. Author Edith Wharton hired Sargent to paint James in 1913. Despite Wharton and Sargent's dissatisfaction with the portrait, James was pleased with the final product.
Around the turn of the century, Sargent was at the height of his fame but had grown weary of portraiture and the limitations of painting for patrons. He shut down his studio in 1907 and shifted his creative focus to architectural studies, watercolors, and landscape paintings.
Many critics saw Sargent's work as outdated and dated as Fauvism, Futurism, and Cubism spread across Europe and America. Nevertheless, he persisted in pushing his artistic boundaries and, between 1916 and 1918, produced significant portraits of John D. Rockefeller and Woodrow Wilson, as well as landscapes across North America. He was hired as a war artist by the British Ministry of Information upon his return to England in 1918, and he went on to paint oil and watercolor scenes from the First World War. He co-founded a New York art gallery and school in 1922 with the artists Walter Leighton Clark and Edmund Greacen. At the age of 69, he returned to England and passed away in his sleep from a heart condition. (The Art Story, n.d.)
Sargent produced many works on paper, about 900 oil paintings, and about 2,000 watercolors. He is the best portrait painter of his time, if not all of American art history. Although critics disapproved of his work at the height of modernism, interest in his contributions steadily grew in the 1950s and 1960s. Sargent's impact on the world of art cannot be overstated, as evidenced by the aristocratic portraits by his friend Emil Fuchs, the early portraits by American modernist artist Archibald Motley, and the portraits of Isabella Watling and Isabella Watling's contemporaries in Britain. Sargent "made people seem wonderful," according to Andy Warhol, whose paintings are a direct tribute to Sargent's technique and mirror the beauty of Sargent's most well-known portraits. (2022)
The Art Story. (n.d.). www.theartstory.org. Retrieved August 19, 2022, from https://www.theartstory.org/artist/sargent-john-singer/
Art in context. (2022, May 23). artincontext.org. artincontext.org. https://artincontext.org/john-singer-sargent/