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Home / Great Artists / S / John Singer Sargent / Biography
Biography John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent Biography


American Impressionist Painter

John Singer Sargent (January 12, 1856 - April 14, 1925) was the most successful portrait painter of his era, as well as a gifted landscape painter and watercolorist. He was an American expatriate who lived most of his life in Europe. Sargent was born in Florence, Italy to American parents. He studied in Italy and Germany, and then in Paris under Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran.

Biography and work
Sargent's portraits subtly capture the individuality and personality of the sitters; his most ardent admirers think he is matched in this only by Diego Velazquez, 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 which echoes Velazquez' Las Meninas. Sargent's Portrait of Madame X, done in 1884, is now considered one of his best works, and was the artist's personal favorite. However, at the time it was unveiled in Paris at the 1884 Salon, it aroused such a negative reaction that it prompted Sargent to move to London. Many years before the Mme. X. scandal of 1884, he painted exotic beauties such as Rosina Ferrara of Capri, and the Spanish expatriate model, Carmela Bertagna.
Although Sargent lived in the United States for less than one year, some of his best work is in the U.S., including his decorations for the Boston Public Library. He also completed portraits of two U.S. presidents: Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Sargent is usually not thought of as an Impressionist painter, but he sometimes used impressionistic techniques to great effect, and his Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood is rendered in his own version of the impressionist style.

Sargent painted a series of three portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson. The second, Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife (1885), was one of his best known.

During the greater part of Sargent's career, he created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolours, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings. About 1910 Sargent forsook portrait painting and focused on landscapes in his later years; he also sculpted later in life. As a concession to the insatiable demand of wealthy patrons for portraits, however, he continued to dash off rapid charcoal portrait sketches for them, which he called "Mugs". Forty-six of these, spanning the years 1890-1916, were exhibited at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1916.

In a time when the art world focused, in turn, on Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism, Sargent practiced his own form of Realism, which brilliantly referenced Velazquez, Van Dyck, and Gainsborough. His seemingly effortless facility for paraphrasing the masters in a contemporary fashion led to a stream of commissioned portraits of remarkable virtuosity. Thus, he was dismissed as an anachronism at the time of his death, but appreciation of his art has since grown steadily, especially following a retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1986.

John Singer Sargent is interred in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, Surrey.

Sargent developed a close friendship with fellow painter Paul Cesar Helleu. They met in Paris in 1878 when Singer was 22 and Helleu was 18. Sargent painted both Helleu and his wife Alice on several occasions.

Sargent was extremely private regarding his personal life, although the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche, who was one of his early sitters, said after his death that Sargent's sex life "was notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous. He was a frenzied bugger." The truth of this may never be established. However most scholars now presume he was homosexual; not only because of his personal associations (such as with Prince Edmond de Polignac and Count Robert de Montesquiou), but because of the way his sensibility shaped his art. This includes not only the sensuality of his male nudes (most particularly his portrait of Thomas E. McKeller), but also the exotic 'otherness' implicit in his general work. It is been suggested that it was this quality which appealed to the sympathies of his many Jewish clients which he painted in the 1890s.