John Singer Sargent was born on January 12th, 1856. He was an Italian American painter famed for his elegant portrait paintings of Edwardian society.
In 1874, Singer Sargent traveled to Paris to study portrait painting with Carolus-Duran, who was known for his portraits of high-society individuals in Third Republic France. Carolus-Duran particularly admired the paintings of Diego Velázquez, a passion he passed onto a young Singer Sargent.
During this formative period in France, Singer Sargent experimented with new impressionist and realist techniques. This influence stayed with the artist throughout his life and is evident in his later, loose, light brushwork paintings.
Singer Sargent exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1877. He won an Honorable Mention in 1879 and a Second-Class medal in 1881. Sargent’s work from this period reflects his travels around Europe and further afield. One of the most notable Singer Sargent paintings is the theatrical oil painting, El Jaleo. Completed in 1882 (from earlier preparatory studies), John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo depicts a Spanish gypsy dancer performing spiritedly.
Sargent found a visit to Spain and North Africa in 1879 inspiring, and El Jaleo is a result of his travels. At the time, it caused a sensation. The dramatic shadows cast on the back wall create a dynamism that was genuinely revolutionary for portraiture paintings of the time.
Returning to Europe that year, Sargent visits Madrid discovering the work of Diego Velázquez. In Haarlem in the Netherlands, the famous portraits of the Dutch Golden Age painter Frans Hals were e revelation. Enthused by Old Masters, Singer Sargent's paintings adopt a dark, jewel-like color palette.
A Parisian Beggar Girl 1880 reflects Singer Sargent’s shift towards portraiture. While he later worked almost exclusively with the upper echelons of society, this oil on canvas painting provides a rare glimpse into a more naturalistic model; in this case, the young woman was Carmela Bertanga. Indeed, many early John Singer Sargent artworks deal with peasant families and young children as his subjects. These paintings focus on light, tone, and brushwork, reflecting impressionist concerns. Singer Sargent mixed these painterly qualities with his brand of astounding realism.
Singer Sargent also experimented with more exotic subject matter around this period; Fumée D'ambre Gris (Smoke of Ambergris) is one such painting. Ambergris is a waxy substance (extracted from whales) used in religious rituals and famed for its aphrodisiac qualities. While starting in Tangier, the suggestive painting was completed in Singer-Sargent’s Paris studio. It reflects Western fantasies and romantic depictions of North Africa, which were common during this era.
Today, Madame X is the most famous John Singer Sargent painting. It was introduced at the Paris Salon of 1884, portraying a renowned society beauty, Madame Gautreau. Singer Sargent considered this painting his finest masterpiece.
The painting met with derision and scandal at the Paris Salon. Singer Sargent was devastated.
The “indiscreet” pose and the revealing dress provoked outrage in Parisian society. In the search for success, Sargent fled Paris and the safety of James McNeill Whistler's Old Tite Street, Chelsea studio.
Despite the move to England, John Singer Sargent portraits proved risqué for contemporary tastes. Indeed, The Pall Mall Gazette voted one of his works (The Misses Vickers) the “worst picture of the year” in 1886.
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882) met with disdain. In this painting, the influence of Velázquez and Las Meninas is particularly evident in this un-sentimentalized and psychologically compelling group portrait.
Luckily for Singer Sargent, however, his luck was about to change. An earlier work, Carnation Lily, Lily Rose (1885), captured the hearts of the British public. He painted the image during a stay in Broadway (a picturesque English Cotswold village) while in the company of leading Anglo-American artists and writers. With its nostalgic and sentimentalized portrayal of two young girls, Singer Sargent successfully tapped into high-society tastes. Again, the influence of Japonisme is apparent with the delicate floral touches and children lighting Japanese lanterns.
From this moment on, leading British and American members of high society commissioned his portrait paintings.
Each client paid, on average, $5,000 for a full-length portrait. His quick brushstrokes, bold touches, and bright palette of color created the impression of a fleeting, intimate moment.
John Singer Sargent’s paintings deal with each sitter as a unique individual. The artist rarely repeated props or poses, resulting in genuinely personalized and revealing portraits.
Sargent's portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw’s Portrait (1882) illustrates this technique in the articulate handling of this painting. The sitter’s piercing eyes gaze directly back at the viewer, while the delicate fabrics of her dress represent amazing freestyle movement and brushstrokes.
Singer Sargent portrait paintings feature famous artists of the time, such as Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of the Woods (1885) and Dennis Miller Bunker Painting at Calcot (1888).
Singer Sargent’s romantic life is the subject of scholarly debate. As a life-long bachelor with known male and female lovers. The sensitive depiction of the male form is particularly evident in an early work, Man Wearing Laurels (1874-80) and the later Nude Study of Thomas E McKeller (1917-20). The latter is particularly unique for its direct, unabashed treatment of full-frontal male nude painting. Albert Belleroche, Sargent’s primary partner, features in multiple intimate and loving portraits throughout the artist’s career.
From 1910 onwards, Sargent discarded portraiture in favor of murals and landscapes. He often spent the Summer and Autumn of each year painting landscapes across Europe. Oil paintings from this period mainly consist of French and Italian alpine watercolor landscapes. Then, taking inspiration from the likes of J.M.W. Turner, Sargent moved towards romantic and impressionist techniques. Camouflaged Field in France (1918) and A Wrecked Tank (1918) combine the tradition of romantic landscapes with the horrors witnessed across Europe in the carnage of World War One.
Singer Sargent involvement in the American art scene in later life sees him co-founding New York City’s Grand Central Art Galleries in 1922. His last murals include a commission for the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
In 1924, after a Grand Central Art Galleries major retrospective of Sargent’s work. Returning to London and battling heart disease, John Singer Sargent died at home on April 15th, 1925.
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