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Born in Florence, Italy to a New England doctor and wife, John Singer Sargent became a leading portrait and figure painter of subjects in international society during the Gilded Age. Late in his career, he was a leading proponent of watercolor as a respectable medium for finished work.
His American parents lived in Europe most of their lives and followed the social season between the capital cities. Traveling continuously with his parents, he showed early art talent and was encouraged by his mother, an amateur painter. In Rome at age 12, he studied with Carl Welsch, a German-American artist and in 1870 at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. In Paris, he was accepted in 1874 at the Ecole des Beaux Arts but switched to the less academically oriented atelier of Carolus Duran, who had major impact on Sargent’s style. Duran was an adventurous portrait painter who blended realism with a certain freedom of style.
Sargent was also affected by portrait style of Velasquez, the Tonalism or mood painting of James Whistler, and Impressionism of Edgar Degas. He spent time at Monet’s home town of Giverny, absorbing Impressionist techniques there.
Sargent’s career ended in Paris with his painting “Portrait of Mme X,” 1884, because it was a startlingly accurate portrayal of a notoriously beautiful woman who was Sargent’s cousin. Some said the pose was provocative, but aside from the reputation of the subject, there seems little reason from a late 20th century perspective to find the work controversial.
From 1885 until 1925, Sargent lived primarily in London where his career as a portrait painter was highly successful, but he traveled frequently to the United States where he also had many portrait commissions, especially from upper class Bostonians. However by 1908, he was expressing much tiredness with the demands on his talents and the need to flatter his subjects. He began to limit himself to charcoal portrait sketches and also painted murals. In the early 1890s, he began a twenty-five year mural project for the Boston Public Library and painted murals at the Widener Library.
In July 1918, he became a part of the War Artists Memorial Committee of the British Ministry of Information and went to France, in the vicinity of Bavincourt, at age 62 to record battle scenes and military figures. Working in both oil and charcoal, it was written about him that he “accepted his surroundings completely and went about his work as though quite accustomed to military life.” One of his associates wrote that he “came to wonder if Sargent had any idea how dangerous an exploding shell might be, for he never showed the least sign of fear.” (Mount 293)
His last years he devoted to Impressionist watercolors of European scenes and architecture. He found watercolor to be the most pleasureable outlet for his tremendous energy and compulsions to sketch what he saw around him. He was a man who lived for his work and aside from general socializing had had little private life beyond his family. He never married although “he had at times adored certain women, momentarialy finding in them a reflected image of what he sought” (Mount 323).
A major retrospective of Sargent’s portrait painting was held at the Tate Gallery in London in Fall, 1998.
Matthew Baigell, “Dictionary of American Art”
Charles Merrill Mount, “John Singer Sargent”