Biography

Sir Max Beerbohm, 'The New English Art Club' 1907
Sir Max Beerbohm
The New English Art Club 1907
© The estate of Max Beerbohm

Wikipedia entry

John Singer Sargent (/ˈsɑːrənt/; January 12, 1856 – April 14, 1925) was an American artist, considered the "leading portrait painter of his generation" for his evocations of Edwardian era luxury. During his career, he created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings. His oeuvre documents worldwide travel, from Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, the Middle East, Montana, Maine, and Florida.

His parents were American, but he was trained in Paris prior to moving to London. Sargent enjoyed international acclaim as a portrait painter, although not without controversy and some critical reservation; an early submission to the Paris Salon, his "Portrait of Madame X", was intended to consolidate his position as a society painter, but it resulted in scandal instead. From the beginning his work was characterized by remarkable technical facility, particularly in his ability to draw with a brush, which in later years inspired admiration as well as criticism for a supposed superficiality. His commissioned works were consistent with the grand manner of portraiture, while his informal studies and landscape paintings displayed a familiarity with Impressionism. In later life Sargent expressed ambivalence about the restrictions of formal portrait work, and devoted much of his energy to mural painting and working en plein air. He lived most of his life in Europe. Art historians generally ignored the society artists such as Sargent until the late 20th century.

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Artist biography

Sargent was born in Florence, the only son of an American surgeon, FitzWilliam Sargent. His childhood was spent touring Europe, mainly in Italy, France, Switzerland and Germany. He entered the Paris studio of Carolus-Duran in 1874, where he stayed as student and assistant until 1878. He visited America in 1876, and the following year exhibited his first portrait at the Paris Salon. He travelled to Spain and Morocco in 1879-80, and to Haarlem in 1880, where he copied works by Velasquez and Frans Hals. He lived in Paris until 1884, then settled in London in 1885 following the stormy reception of his Madame Gautreau at the 1884 Paris Salon.

Sargent exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Grosvenor Gallery from 1882, and with the New English Art Club, of which he was a founding member, from 1886. He held a one-man exhibition at the St Botolph Club, Boston, Massachusetts in 1888. He exhibited at Knoedler's, New York in 1909 and 1912. He was made an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1894, and a full member in 1897. His murals for the Boston Public Library were begun in 1891. He travelled widely in Europe, and visited the Holy Land in 1905-6.

Sargent's international reputation as a portraitist reached its peak in the 1890s and early 1900s, and he painted many of the distinguished personalities of his day, including the actress Dame Ellen Terry (Tate Gallery N02053), the art dealer Asher Wertheimer and his family (Tate Gallery N03705-13, T07104), Coventry Patmore and Henry James. Many of his clients were Americans: Roosevelt, Rockefeller, H.G. Marquand, and Lady Randolph Churchill. By 1910 he had given up all but the occasional portrait, devoting himself to landscapes and the murals at Boston. His most important war picture, Gassed (1919), is in the Imperial War Museum, London. A retrospective exhibition was held at the Grand Central Art Galleries, New York, in 1924. Sargent died in London. He remained an American citizen throughout his life. Memorial exhibitions of his work were held in Boston in 1925, and at the Royal Academy, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Tate Gallery in 1926. Retrospective exhibitions have been held at the Whitney Museum, New York, 1986-7 and the Tate Gallery, 1998.

Further reading:
The Hon. Evan Charteris, John Sargent, London 1927
Richard Ormond, John Singer Sargent: Paintings, Drawings, Watercolours, London 1970
Patricia Hills (ed.), John Singer Sargent, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1986
Warren Adelson et. al., Sargent Abroad: Figures and Landscapes, New York and London 1997

Terry Riggs
January 1998

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