Artist profile: John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent, self portrait
John Singer Sargent, self portrait

Artist John Singer Sargent was considered one of the most successful portrait painters of his era. Born in Florence to American parents in 1856, Sargent grew up in a family that traveled throughout the Continent and in England. Showing early talent in art, at the age of 12, he studied in Rome with German-American landscape painter Carl Welsch. He continued his studies in 1874 in Paris and soon entered the studio of Charles-Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran; through Carolus-Duran’s approach to relaxed brushwork and tonal palette, Sargent would eventually form the aesthetic basis of his own style. Sargent was also influenced by the styles of Velasquez, James Whistler and Edgar Degas.

In 1876, Sargent made his first visit to the United States, visiting the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Returning to France a year later, he established a firm reputation in Paris in 1878 when one of his paintings won an Honorable Mention at that year’s Salon. As Sargent continued his career, making painting trips abroad, he embarked on what would prove to be a very lucrative career as a portraitist. However, his career in Paris basically ended with one of his best known (or some would say, most notorious) works: his painting of Madame Pierre Gautreau in 1884. Gautreau was known for her artful appearance and distinctive personality and Sargent portrayed her elegantly, sensually and realistically and with a shoulder strap falling off one of her shoulders. This, combined with her hand showing her wedding ring, signified (at least, to Paris society) that she would look kindly on introductions from men other than her husband. Showing this kind of sex appeal of a married, high-society woman, was scandalous. At the Salon of 1884, this portrait received multiple bad reviews, despite the fact that there several paintings of nudes at the same Salon. Sargent was soon faced with second problem: faced with this social scandal, Gautreau’s family was in no mood to buy the painting. Sargent had painted her on spec, betting on the notoriety of the Salon display and fame to bring him a high price and further commissions. He eventually repainted the shoulder strap and kept the painting until 1916, after Gautreau’s death, and sold it to the Met. He wrote to one of the museum’s curators: “I should prefer, on account of the row I had with the lady years ago, that the picture should not be called by her name.” Hence, the painting’s title, “Portrait of Madame X.” 

Portrait of Madame X
Portrait of Madame X

From 1885 until 1925, Sargent lived primarily in London, although he had many portrait commissions in the United States. During that time period, he made a name for himself as a painter of impressionist landscapes and by 1906, had moved away from portraits, concentrating instead on plein air landscapes and genre subjects, as well as his mural work which he had already begun work on. You can see examples of his murals at the Widener Library (Harvard University) and at the Boston Public Library. By 1918, Sargent had become part of the War Artists Memorial Committee of the British Ministry of Information and at the age of 62, went to France to record battle scenes and military figures. In his last years, he focused his work on impressionist watercolors of European architecture and scenes.

At the time of his death in 1925, Sargent was known as one of America’s most celebrated painters.  You may see one of his paintings, “Portrait of Charlotte Cram” at the St. Louis Art Museum. Purchased by the museum in December of 2017, this lovely painting shows seven year-old Charlotte leaning back in a chair (although she looks as if she didn’t want to necessarily sit still for this portrait). If you enjoy Sargent’s work, the Art Institute of Chicago is presenting an exhibit of John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age.  This exhibit runs from July 1 and through September 30, 2018.  We also have several books about Sargent and his work in our collection, including John Singer Sargent by Sargent, John Singer Sargent: Complete Paintings edited by Richard Ormond, Painting Religion in Public: John Singer Sargent's Triumph of Religion at the Boston Public Library by Sally Promey and many more. 

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