SARGENT, John Singer
(b. 1856, Firenze, d. 1925, London)
American painter and draughtsman, active in England. The most fashionable portrait painter working in England and the USA in the late 19th century, he was brought up by expatriate American parents in an environment of restless travel and insulated family life. He was cosmopolitan in outlook, a linguist, a fine pianist and an avid reader of the classics. The spirit of self-sufficiency and isolation, both physical and emotional, remained with him all his life. He never married, grew wary of emotional entanglements and remained closest to his sisters, especially the eldest, Emily.
He was educated in Italy, France, and Germany. In 1874 he went to Paris, where he studied under Carolus-Duran. He remained there for 10 years except for visits to the United States, Spain, and Africa. From his first exhibit in the Salon of 1878 he received early recognition, and by 1884, when he moved to London, he already enjoyed a high reputation as a portrait painter. He spent most of the remainder of his life there, painting the dashing portraits of American and English social celebrities for which he is famous. For a considerable period of time, Sargent was the world's best-known and most highly paid portrait painter. In 1890 he was commissioned by the architect Charles McKim to paint a series of murals, The History of Religion, for the Boston Public Library. He completed them in 1916.
An untiring and prolific painter of great facility, Sargent was particularly brilliant in his treatment of textures. In his portraiture he showed great virtuosity in his handling of the brushstrokes, quickly capturing the likeness and vitality of his subject. His portraits nearly always flattered his sitters; he remarked upon this once, saying his was a pimp's profession.
During his youth, and again after 1910, he deserted portrait painting long enough to produce a large number of brilliant impressionistic landscapes in watercolour, many of them painted in Venice and the Tyrol. Of these, fine collections are in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Brooklyn Museum. His portraits and figure pieces are housed in many private and public collections in England and the United States. Well-known examples are the portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner and El Jaleo (Gardner Museum, Boston); the portraits of Madame X, the Wyndham sisters, Henry Marquand, and William Merritt Chase (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); The Fountain (Art Institute, Chicago); and Daughters of E. D. Boit (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). During the late 1990s and early 2000s Sargent was subject to wide-ranging critical reappraisal, provoking a renewed appreciation for his work.