John Singer Sargent was the most celebrated and successful portrait painter of his era, as well as a gifted landscape artist and watercolorist of the 19th century.
John Singer Sargent was born on January 12, 1856 in Florence, Italy, the son of American doctor Fitzwilliam Sargent and neurasthenic artist Mary Newbold Singer. He was schooled in the French art tradition, attending classes at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence before enrolling at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1874. There, he studied under famous Parisian portraitist Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran (1838 - 1917).
Sargent traveled to America just before his 21st birthday to obtain his citizenship, and later traveled throughout Europe to practice and study art. Throughout his travels, he remained active in Paris for several years, submitting pictures to the annual Paris Salon. Among the artist’s first important clients in Paris were the Paillerons, whose portraits he painted in 1879.
At the 1884 Paris Salon, Sargent exhibited ‘Madame X’, the controversial portrait of twenty-three year old American Virginie Gautreau. It’s eccentric and provocative nature shocked the public. The right shoulder strap of her dress fallen from her shoulder caused such a scandal that it forced the artist to move to London, where he spent most of his adult life. On his rare visits to the United States, he did some portraiture as well as a series of murals entitled ‘The History of Religion’ for the Boston Public Library in 1890.
As a close friend of Claude Monet, Sargent painted him sketching out of doors (Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood). He painted landscapes in the ‘plein air’ impressionist manner. ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’ (1885-86) was one of the most striking studies of twilight ever painted. It was the first piece of public impressionism to be produced in Britain and, after its exhibition in 1887, remained the most important example of the new style for some time.
During a year-long trip to the United States in 1887-88, the artist accepted nearly forty society portrait commissions, one of which was the touching portrait of ‘Lady Agnew of Lochnaw’. Its popularity resulted in his election to the Royal Academy.
In the 1890s and early 1900s, John Singer Sargent became the most admired portrait painter in Britain and the United States, producing more than five hundred portraits. In 1903, he published a photogravure collection of 62 paintings.
In 1918, Sargent was commissioned to create a large painting that symbolized the co-operation between British and American forces during the First World War. The artist was sent to France with the British painter Henry Tonks. Witness to the horrors of war, he painted ‘Gassed’, a haunting image.
Tired of portrait painting, John Singer Sargent turned to landscapes, producing more than a thousand oils and watercolors in his lifetime, many of which were painted in Venice and the Tyrol. He embraced the opportunity to prove himself as a mural decorator when he was commissioned to paint a series of murals on the ceilings of the Museum of Fine Arts and for the Widener Memorial Library at Harvard. While preparing for a trip to Boston from his London residence, Sargent died quietly in his sleep of a heart attack on April 25, 1925 at the age of sixty-nine, leaving his murals unfinished.