An American painter who spent most of his life abroad, John Singer Sargent was born in 1856 in the city of Florence while his parents were traveling there. Most notably a painter of portraits, Sargent’s most celebrated paintings include Portrait of Madame X (1884) and Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-1886). His extensive repertoire of work contains approximately nine hundred oil paintings, over two thousand watercolor paintings, and innumerable sketches.
Sargent’s father was an eye surgeon from Philadelphia who was also a skilled medical illustrator. His mother had some artistic skill as well. Sargent’s parents left the country shortly after the death of their daughter, Sargent’s older sister, and stayed abroad throughout his childhood. Instead of much formal education, Sargent spent much of his time in museums. He was ensconced in the arts throughout his childhood and grew to be an exceptional musician as well as artist.
Sargent began his art training with the portrait artist Carolus-Duran in Paris and soon entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Sargent gained notoriety as a student for his excellent work, excellent French, and generally pleasing person. Sargent’s earliest entries to the Salon received favorable reviews. Among these early entries was Oyster Gatherers of Cancale (1878). By the 1880s Sargent regularly exhibited portraits in the Salon and continued to receive excellent reviews. Sargent was a great admirer of Velazquez and spent time in Spain studying his work. His famous painting El Jaleo (1882) reflects a Velazquez influence.
In 1884 Sargent created a scandal with his painting Portrait of Madame X. This infamous portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau is also considered today to be one of the artist’s best works. The subject’s plunging neckline and the original off-shoulder strap of the gown shocked the art world. Sargent removed the shoulder strap altogether as a remedy, but he continued to receive criticism for the work. Eventually Sargent left Paris and settled in London. Sargent became one of the most famous portrait artists of his time. Another portrait, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892-1893), achieved critical success for him.
Sargent became friends with many painters of the time including Monet. Although Sargent often painted in the Impressionist style, he was not considered a full-fledged Impressionist possibly owing to his strong Carolus-Duran influence. One of his most famous Impressionist paintings is Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood (1885). Sargent sometimes preferred the plein air method of painting like many Impressionists.
Sargent never married and died in London in 1925. Art critics have placed him in and out of favor, but he is highly regarded today for his extensive body of work. His portraits exude with the mood of their subjects and his use of watercolor has been called brilliant. Sargent was offered a knighthood in the early twentieth century, but he declined and remained a United States Citizen, though he is buried in England and spent the latter part of his life there.