Childhood & Early Life
John Singer Sargent was born on January 12, 1856, in Florence, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, Italy, to FitzWilliam and Mary Newbold Singer.
His father worked as an eye surgeon at the ‘Wills Eye Hospital’ located in Philadelphia, before the birth of Sargent.
John had an older sister who died at the age of 2. Subsequently, his parents became nomadic and traveled around Europe.
After his birth, his parents lived a simple life, while his father left his job in Philadelphia to settle abroad permanently. Sargent had four more siblings, but only two lived to adulthood.
As a child, Sargent was less interested in studies and more inclined toward outdoor activities. His mother was an amateur artist. His father later worked as a medical illustrator. Sargent was encouraged by his mother to work on drawings and spent a lot of time making sketches of landscapes.
At 13, he was trained in watercolor painting by German landscape painter Carl Welsch. He grew up to be a fine man, well-versed in art, literature, and music. He could speak English, Italian, French, and German fluently.
His first formal art training was at the ‘Accademia di Belle Arti’ in Florence in 1873–1874.
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Sargent began his career training under French artist Carolus-Duran in Paris. In 1874, Sargent cleared the exam for admission to the ‘École des Beaux-Arts,’ a premier art institute in France. He attended drawing classes, including anatomy and perspective. Soon, he won a silver prize.
He also drew in museums and painted in a studio that he shared with James Carroll Beckwith. Beckwith later helped Sargent build connections with American artists. Sargent also trained under Léon Bonnat.
Sargent later befriended Paul César Helleu, through whom he met some of the stalwarts of the art world, such as Monet, Degas, Rodin, and Whistler.
Sargent was initially interested in landscapes. However, Carolus-Duran's expertise in portraits drove Sargent to follow suit.
A portrait of Fanny Watts that he created in 1877 was Sargent’s first major work in portraiture. This also marked his first ‘Salon’ entry. This was followed by ‘Oyster Gatherers of Cançale,’ his second ‘Salon’ admission. In 1879, he paid a tribute to his mentor, Carolus-Duran, by drawing his portrait and exhibiting it at the ‘Paris Salon.’
After leaving Carolus-Duran’s workshop, Sargent went to Spain. There, he got acquainted with the Spanish music and culture, which was expressed in his painting ‘El Jaleo’ (1882) later. He also studied the works of Spanish artist Velázquez.
His subsequent trips to Italy inspired some of his paintings. He then returned to Paris and received a number of portrait commissions. This was the beginning of his professional career. Meanwhile, he trained his friend Emil Fuchs in oil painting.
By the 1880s, Sargent was a regular at the ‘Salon.’ He was mostly known for full-length portraits of women, the most notable of them being ‘Madame Edouard Pailleron’ (1880) and ‘Madame Ramón Subercaseaux’ (1881).
Sargent's ‘The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit’ (1882) was very similar to Velázquez's ‘Las Meninas.’ Another of his most popular works of that time was ‘The Lady with the Rose’ (1882), a portrait of friend Charlotte Burckhardt.
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In 1884, Sargent created what is considered his most controversial work, ‘Portrait of Madame X.’ It was a portrait of young Parisian socialite Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. It was one of the artist’s favorite works.
Soon after it was unveiled at the ‘Salon,’ it was deluged with negative feedback. The problem began with the off-the-shoulder dress strap that the painting exhibited in its first version. People considered it a vulgar display of vanity. Although Sargent repainted it later, the damage was done. The reactions were so strong that Sargent had to move to London soon after. Even Gautreau’s mother accused Sargent of destroying her daughter’s reputation. Although prior to the ‘Madame X’ scandal, Sargent had painted portraits of Rosina Ferrara of Capri and Spanish model Carmela Bertagna, these works were not displayed to the general public.
The situation improved with Sargent’s next masterpiece, ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–1886), which showed two girls lighting Chinese lanterns at dusk. Soon, he was being commissioned again by wealthy clients from Europe and America.
In the 1890s and the early 1900s, Sargent painted portraits of eminent personalities such as Theodore Roosevelt, Dame Ellen Terry, and Henry James.
His traveled to New York and Boston in 1887–1888 and created more than 20 major commissioned works. These included portraits of art patron Isabella Stewart Gardner and Mrs. Adrian Iselin, the wife of a New York-based businessman. Soon, Sargent earned his first solo exhibition, in Boston, and displayed 22 paintings.
Around this time, he also got acquainted with painter Dennis Miller Bunker. Bunker was the subject of Sargent's 1888 painting titled ‘Dennis Miller Bunker Painting at Calcot.’
By 1910, Sargent distanced himself from portraits, focusing on painting murals and landscapes instead. The war painting titled ‘Gassed’ (1919) was one of his most significant creations from this period. It was commissioned by the British government who wanted him to portray the Anglo-American cooperation during World War I.
From 1890 to 1916, he created countless charcoal sketches, commissioned by affluent clients. He called these sketches “Mugs.”
In 1924, the ‘Grand Central Art Galleries’ in New York witnessed Sargent’s retrospective exhibition. Following this, Sargent returned to London, but he died of heart disease soon after.
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Some of his most prominent works, apart from ‘Madame X,’ are ‘The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit’ (1882), ‘Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children’ (1896), ‘Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood’ (1885), Bedouins (1905–1906), Venetian Canal (1913), and ‘Nude Study of Thomas E. McKeller’ (1917–1920). His credits include over 2,000 watercolor works, 900 oil paintings, and numerous other works on paper.
Family & Personal Life
Not much is known about Sargent’s personal life, except the fact that he had never married. However, it is believed he was on the verge of being engaged twice.
His detailed male nudes, many of which he did not reveal while he was alive, have stirred rumors of his homosexuality. He was said to be close to Prince Edmond de Polignac and Count Robert de Montesquiou. His nude of Thomas E. McKeller and his portraits of young men such as Bartholomy Maganosco and Head of Olimpio Fusco have increasingly pointed toward his supposed homosexual nature.
However, he had many women friends, too. His female portraits such as ‘Egyptian Girl’ (1891) are considered equally erotic and have thus confused people who could not decipher his sexuality. Many believe that he had had an affair with Louise Burckhardt, who had modeled for ‘Lady with the Rose.’
In 1925–1926, memorial exhibitions, in honor of Sargent, were held in Boston, New York, and London.
In 1928, a posthumous exhibition of Sargent’s works was held at the ‘Grand Central Art Galleries.’
Sargent's murals can be found in the Boston/Cambridge area. They are housed in the ‘Boston Public Library,’ the ‘Museum of Fine Arts,’ and ‘Harvard's ‘Widener Library.’
In 2014, 40 female artists created paintings inspired by Sargent's creations, at the "Sargent's Daughters" exhibition in New York.
‘Madame X: A Burlesque Fantasy,’ a show based on Sargent’s life and his infamous ‘Madame X,’ premiered at ‘The Overtime Theater’ in Texas.