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date: 14 June 2024

Sargent, John Singerfree

(b Florence, Jan 12, 1856; d London, Apr 25, 1925).

Sargent, John Singerfree

(b Florence, Jan 12, 1856; d London, Apr 25, 1925).
  • Richard Ormond

Updated in this version

bibliography updated by Jennifer Wu

American painter and draftsman, active in England. The most fashionable portrait painter working in England and the USA in the late 19th century, he was brought up by expatriate American parents in an environment of restless travel and insulated family life. He was cosmopolitan in outlook, a linguist, a fine pianist, and an avid reader of the classics. The spirit of self-sufficiency and isolation, both physical and emotional, remained with him all his life. He never married, grew wary of emotional entanglements, and remained closest to his sisters, especially the eldest, Emily.

1. Training and early career, to 1886.

From an early age Sargent was committed to the idea of becoming an artist and threw all his energy into the pursuit of this. The artist’s father, Dr. Fitzwilliam Sargent, was anxious about the vagaries of an artistic career but did not stand in the way of his son’s evident vocation. Together in 1874 they decided that he should enter the Paris studio of the portrait painter Carolus-Duran, which was then becoming popular with American art students. The fashionable Carolus-Duran shared with many of his contemporaries an obsession with tonal values and constantly invoked the example of Velázquez in his teaching. Sargent studied the work of Velázquez at first hand in Spain in 1879; Frans Hals was also an important influence on his brushwork. Under Carolus-Duran, Sargent was trained to concentrate on painting rather than on a prescribed academic course of drawing, and he soon distinguished himself by his keenness of eye and facility of hand. His first exhibited work, a portrait of Miss Fanny Watts (exh. Salon 1877; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.), was followed by Oyster Gatherers of Cancale (exh. Salon 1878; Washington, DC, Corcoran Gal. A.), an ambitious picture in which he combined formal figure arrangement with the vivid naturalism of his early essays in plein-air painting. Inspired by the Barbizon school and by the Impressionists, Sargent spent his summers painting outdoor figure sketches and landscapes in a modernist and experimental vein, as in Two Boys on a Beach, Naples (1878; Ormond priv. col., see Lomax and Ormond 1979, 21). Summer visits to Brittany were followed by journeys to Capri, Spain, and Venice. The studies made during these travels inspired a succession of formal salon pictures. The most significant of these, El Jaleo (exh. Salon 1882; Boston, MA, Isabella Stewart Gardner Mus.), depicts a dancer performing in a Madrid café; its exhilarating lighting and theatricality made it instantly popular.

Portraiture, rather than subject painting, however, was to prove Sargent’s chosen sphere. His portrait of Carolus-Duran (exh. Salon 1879; Williamstown, MA, Clark A. Inst.) is an eloquent testament to the incisive bravura style he had absorbed from his master. On the strength of the portrait’s success, he acquired a number of French patrons, chief among them the playwright Edouard Pailleron (1834–1899). His portraits of Edouard Pailleron (1879; Versailles, Château), Mme. Pailleron (1879; Washington, DC, Corcoran Gal. A.), posed against an alpine meadow, and their two children, Edouard and Marie Louise Pailleron (1881; Des Moines, IA, A. Cent.), combine nervous elegance with qualities of psychological insight and great vigor.

John Singer Sargent: Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), oil on canvas, 82⅛ × 43¼ in. (208.6 × 109.9 cm), 1883–1884 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1916, Accession ID:16.53); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/20012492

Among his clients, Americans soon outnumbered French. His portrait of the Four Daughters of Edward D. Boit (1882; Boston, MA, Mus. F.A.), an amateur artist, with its subtle arrangement and enveloping sense of space, is a landmark in the evolution of his style. It was followed by Mrs. Henry White (1883; Washington, DC, Corcoran Gal. A.), wife of a diplomat and a prominent socialite, and then by the portrait of the celebrated beauty Mme Gautreau (1884; New York, Met.; see fig.), exhibited under the title of “Madame X.” The provocative stance and décolletage of the latter offended French sensibilities, and the portrait was denounced as a decadent example of modern art at the Salon of 1884. It remains Sargent’s most famous work, a stylized and original design, perfectly matched to the bizarre beauty of its subject.

John Singer Sargent: study of Mme Gautreau (‘Madame X’), oil on canvas, c. 1884 (London, Tate); Photo credit: Tate, London/Art Resource, NY

The scandal encouraged Sargent to move from Paris to London, for his rising reputation had not been matched by an increase in commissions. After long visits to England in 1884 and 1885, he finally settled in London in 1886, urged to do so by his friend Henry James. For a time his career in Britain was threatened by criticism of his modernist tendencies. He spent his summers in the Cotswolds village of Broadway, Hereford & Worcs, painting in a broad Impressionist manner under the inspiration of Monet (see fig.), also a friend; he painted Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood (c. 1885–1886; London, Tate). Sargent’s experimental work at Broadway resulted in one large-scale work, an aesthetic study of two young girls lighting Chinese lanterns in a garden at twilight, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–1886; London, Tate). It proved popular with the public when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887 and was purchased for the Chantrey Bequest.

2. Later career, 1887 and after.

In 1887 Sargent visited the USA for only the second time to paint Mrs. Henry Marquand (Princeton U., NJ, A. Mus.). He was greeted as a celebrity and inundated with commissions. During this and a subsequent visit in 1890 he painted more than fifty portraits, establishing a practice in New York and Boston that was to prove nearly as lucrative as that in London. In 1890 he accepted a commission to decorate the Boston Public Library designed by McKim, Mead & White with a series of murals illustrating the development of religious thought. These murals, and a later cycle of classical and allegorical subjects at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, were to occupy a large part of Sargent’s energies for the rest of his life. He began work on the decoration of the Museum in 1916, combining elliptical canvas panels with low-relief moldings in the rotunda, and larger canvases on the stair-hall walls. The white plaster and gilded framework was also executed by Sargent and blends in with the predominantly blue and golden tones of the scenes, which portray a series of figures painted in a classical style. Sargent’s flat, decorative mural style, with its combination of painted and sculpted motifs, has many original features and has been consistently underrated.

In England, Sargent had been aligned with the New English Art Club and other avant-garde groups during the late 1880s and early 1890s. With the success of Lady Agnew (exh. RA 1893; Edinburgh, N.G.) and his subsequent election as an ARA, Sargent’s career was definitively established. His bravura style, enriched with Impressionist qualities of light and color, seemed to his supporters to be dazzling by comparison with the dowdy and old-fashioned work of his contemporaries. He presented his sitters with rare immediacy, setting them in real spaces and capturing moments of arrested movement. The artist’s ability to set down what he saw with all the force of a first impression was matched to powers of large-scale composition and an intuitive feeling for character and status. In the portrait of Mrs. Carl Meyer and her Children (1896; priv. col., see Lomax and Ormond 1979, 59), the family of a wealthy banker, the central figure is dramatically brought forward by means of foreshortened perspective, her enormous peach-colored dress filling the foreground. The lines of the design incorporate Mrs. Meyer’s arm and the back of a Louis XV sofa and terminate with the children shyly tucked in at the top of the picture space. This image of fin-de-siècle opulence was to be repeated in a series of portraits of the Bond Street dealer Asher Wertheimer and his family, beginning in 1898 with those of himself and his wife and ending in 1908 with the portrait of Almena, Daughter of Asher Wertheimer (the majority London, Tate).

John Singer Sargent: Ada Rehan, oil on canvas, 93 × 50⅛ in. (236.2 × 127.3 cm), 1894–1895 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Catharine Lasell Whitin, in memory of Ada Rehan, 1940, Accession ID: 40.146); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/20012391

By 1900 Sargent was the leading society portrait painter on both sides of the Atlantic, the “van Dyck of our times” as Auguste Rodin called him. Over the course of a decade and a half he painted many of the great political, mercantile, and artistic figures of his day in a sequence of powerful images that call to mind the work of his greatest predecessors. Among American sitters, Sargent’s successes include portraits of the actress Ada Rehan (1895), Mr. and Mrs. Phelps Stokes (1897; both New York, Met.), Major Henry Higginson (1903; Cambridge, MA, Harvard U., Portrait Col.), and Mrs. Fiske Warren and her Daughter (1903; Boston, MA, Mus. F.A.). During the late 1890s and early 1900s, in response to commissions from aristocratic English sitters, Sargent developed a new repertory of poses and settings, inspired in large measure by Reynolds and van Dyck. His languid vision of the Wyndham Sisters (1900; New York, Met.), labeled the Three Graces by Edward, Prince of Wales, was matched by the still more imposing Misses Acheson (1902; Chatsworth, Derbys) and by his monumental Marlborough Family (1905; Blenheim Pal., Oxon), which is one of Sargent’s greatest formal portraits. Painted as a pendant to Reynolds’s picture of George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough, and his Family (1778; Blenheim Pal., Oxon), Sargent’s group depicts Charles Richard John, the 9th Duke, his beautiful American wife, Consuelo, and his two sons in van Dyck costume, seen at the base of a great staircase, below flags, trophies, and a bust of John Churchill, the 1st Duke.

John Singer Sargent: Splendid Mountain Watercolors Sketchbook, black impressed cardboard (cover); various media on off-white wove paper, 10⅞ × 16 in. (27.6 × 40.6 cm) (sheets), 1870 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond, 1950, Accession ID:50.130.146); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/20018408

After 1900 Sargent spent his summers on long sketching holidays in the Alps (see fig.) and southern Europe with his sister Emily and painter friends. His prodigious output of oil paintings and watercolors from this period includes many landscapes, architectural studies, Venetian canal scenes, and views of gardens of Italian villas, as well as sketches of his nieces in Alpine meadows and of oxen, of marble quarries, and of scenes of rural life. On his Holidays, Norway (exh. RA 1902; Port Sunlight, Lady Lever A.G.), an informal portrait of the son of the collector George McCulloch on the banks of a river, concentrates attention on the landscape setting and on the boy’s relaxed attitude and dreamy expression. Sargent’s ability to record scenes in terms of light and color gives his landscapes a vivid sense of atmosphere. His paint surfaces have an extraordinary vitality; no brushstroke is wasted. Few of his landscapes were sold or exhibited during his lifetime, although two important blocks of watercolors were sold to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Brooklyn Museum in 1911 and 1909. In his watercolors, Sargent often combined highly finished foreground features with an extreme sketchiness in the strokes used to depict background details; in A Spanish Interior (c. 1903; priv. col., see Lomax and Ormond 1979, 95), for example, the facial features of the foreground figures are vividly portrayed. Contrasts of light and dark are also often extreme. Despite this handling, other watercolors, such as Miss Sargent Sketching (c. 1908; Ormond priv. col., see Lomax and Ormond 1979, 103), always convey a vivid sense of light and atmosphere.

John Singer Sargent: Gassed, based on descriptions of soldiers poisoned by mustard gas, at the dressing station at Le Bac-de-Sud on Doullens-Arras Road, August 1918, 1919 (London, Imperial War Museum); reproduced with permission from Imperial War Museum/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY

Preoccupied by his murals and landscape studies, Sargent shocked high-society circles by announcing in 1907 that he was giving up his portrait practice. Exceptions were made only for particular friends or occasional celebrities, among them Henry James (1913; London, N.P.G.), John D. Rockefeller (1917; e.g., ex-J. R. Rockefeller priv. col., see Mount 1955, 144–145), and President Woodrow Wilson (1917; Dublin, N.G.). For the majority of his sitters Sargent replaced oil paintings with charcoal drawings, which usually required only a single sitting, and which he referred to as “mug shots.” Sargent’s last years were devoted to the completion of his mural cycles. He continued to cross the Atlantic for this purpose during the war years, journeying to the Rocky Mountains in 1916. Two years later he visited the Western Front in France, producing a sequence of watercolors as well as studies for Gassed (1919; London. Imp. War Mus.; see fig.). This elegiac work unites a monumental figure composition, in the form of a frieze of blinded men, with a landscape setting of great pathos and beauty. Rather against his will, Sargent also accepted a commission to paint Some General Officers of the Great War (1922; London, N.P.G.).

On Sargent’s death a successful studio sale, held at Christie’s, London, on July 24 and 27, 1925, was complemented by large commemorative exhibitions in Boston, London, and New York. Thereafter his work, with its traditional themes, fell from critical esteem under the impact of the development of modernist theories, and it was only in the late 1970s that his importance was once more recognized.

For further bibliography see R. H. Getscher and P. G. Marks: James McNeil Whistler and John Singer Sargent. New York, 1986.

Bibliography

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