John Singer Sargent, born January 12, 1856, was an American expatriate artist, considered the "leading portrait painter of his generation" for his evocations of Edwardian-era luxury. He created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings. His oeuvre documents worldwide travel, from Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, Spain and the Middle East.
Born in Florence to American parents, he was trained in Paris before moving to London, living most of his life in Europe. He enjoyed international acclaim as a portrait painter. An early submission to the Paris Salon in the 1880s, his Portrait of Madame X, was intended to consolidate his position as a society painter in Paris, but instead resulted in scandal. During the next year following the scandal, Sargent departed for England where he continued a successful career as a portrait artist.
From the beginning, Sargent's work is characterised by remarkable technical facility, particularly in his ability to draw with a brush, which in later years inspired admiration as well as criticism for a supposed superficiality. His commissioned works were consistent with the grand manner of portraiture, while his informal studies and landscape paintings displayed a familiarity with Impressionism. In later life Sargent expressed ambivalence about the restrictions of formal portrait work, and devoted much of his energy to mural painting and working en plein air. Art historians generally ignored society artists such as Sargent until the late 20th century.
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 Velázquez, 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 (Arsène Vigeant, 1885, Musées de Metz ; Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Newton Phelps-Stokes, 1897, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and earned Sargent the moniker, "the Van Dyck of our times." Still, during his life his work engendered critical responses from some of his colleagues: Camille Pissarro wrote "he is not an enthusiast but rather an adroit performer", and Walter Sickert published a satirical turn under the heading "Sargentolatry". By the time of his death he was dismissed as an anachronism, a relic of the Gilded Age and out of step with the artistic sentiments of post-World War I Europe. Foremost of Sargent's detractors was the influential English art critic Roger Fry, of the Bloomsbury Group, who at the 1926 Sargent retrospective in London dismissed Sargent's work as lacking aesthetic quality.
Despite a long period of critical disfavor, Sargent's popularity has increased steadily since the 1960s, and Sargent has been the subject of large-scale exhibitions in major museums, including a retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1986, and a 1999 "blockbuster" travelling show that exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the National Gallery of Art Washington, and the National Gallery, London.
The exhibition in the 1980s of Sargent's previously hidden male nudes served to spark a re-evaluation of his life and work, and its psychological complexity. In addition to the beauty, sensation, and innovation of his oeuvre, his same-sex interests, unconventional friendships with women, and engagement with race, gender-nonconformity, and emerging globalism, are now viewed as socially and aesthetically progressive, and radical.
Reading Recommendations & Content Considerations
John Singer Sargent in His World 42 Works by John Singer Sargent