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John Singer Sargent: 1856 - 1925

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, in 1856, the son of wealthy expatriate Americans. His first art lesson took place in Florence, but the family traveled around Europe for some years and settled in Paris in 1874.

On a trip to Venice, Sargent had met and been encouraged by James McNeill Whistler. He joined the Paris Ecole des Beaux-Arts, entering the studio of Carolus-Duran, an unimaginative but technically dexterous painter, exact in the formal organization of his subject matter. Sargent was precocious and took full advantage of the thoroughness of his training. In 1877 he exhibited a portrait at the Paris Salon. He spent a few months in Spain in 1879, as a result of which he adopted Velazquez' rich coloring on pale contrasting backgrounds. Of the work of contemporary artists, Manet's painting most attracted him.

Sargent's style matured quickly. His sparkling portraits, so full of virtuosity as to be almost facile, mirror his cosmopolitan background and easy acquaintance with society. He won notoriety at the Salon of 1884, with his portrait of Mme. Gautreau, a Parisian beauty and society woman. The public, the sitter, her family, and the critics reacted violently to the painting, with condemnation of the "shocking" décolletage. Sargent was startled and bitterly upset. The next year he moved to London, his home for the rest of his life, and in 1877 caused a pleasant stir at the Royal Academy with his Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, in which an exotic Japanese influence was much in evidence. He often went to America. His first show there was held in January, 1888. In 1893 he exhibited nine pictures at the Chicago World Fair. In 1909 he was commissioned to decorate a room in the new Public Library in Boston, Massachusetts. The resulting murals, warm, rich, and monumental, depicted the history of the Jewish and Christian religions and were the subject of continual controversy.

Sargent's decorations, 1916-25, for the dome of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts are of a very different type, light and airy. His color grew paler in these later years and, although his brushwork never lost its liveliness and fluidity, his technique became repetitive. Any earlier sense of urgency was gone.

From about 1910 Sargent worked a great deal in watercolour, producing landscapes full of vibrant light and far more spontaneous than his portraits ever were. Nevertheless his most interesting painting is perhaps his Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson. It is unusual to an extent that perturbed Stevenson himself. The writer is seen to one side of the composition, pacing a room; a hall opens out in the background, and to the right there is a glimpse of Mrs. Stevenson in an Indian costume.

Sargent died in London in April, 1925, having been for many years lionized as a fashionable portraitist. Although he made no real contribution to the development of painting, he appealed to an Edwardian public that delighted in his obvious enjoyment of rich surfaces and the vitality he gave to the features of his sitters.

Additional Exhibits on John Singer Sargent
Making of a Masterpiece: Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose  

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