Artists & Designers

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

An American citizen born in Florence, John Singer Sargent spent his life traveling and painting portraits of the leading figures of the Gilded Age. He spent his life as an expatriate, making intermittent visits to the United States while maintaining studios in Paris, London, New York City, and Boston.Sargent was much in demand on both sides of the Atlantic for his elegant, aristocratic portraits, but is now also remembered for his brilliant watercolors and genre subjects. Elegant, fluent in several languages, and comfortable in any metropolitan setting, Sargent was described by fellow expatriate Henry James as "civilized to his fingertips."

Sargent had little formal education but showed an early aptitude for language, music, and drawing, which was fostered by extensive travels in Europe. He studied art in the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence and in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1874 he entered the studio of Carolus-Duran where he learned a broad, coloristic manner of painting. He also worked outdoors in Barbizon and at the bohemian English colony in Grey, developing a spontaneous, impressionist style. After a painting he sent to the Paris Salon of 1878 won an award, his professional career was established. The following year, Sargent toured Spain and North Africa for five months, at a time when Spain in particular was considered an exotic land with links closer to Africa than Europe.

Sargent's early work suggests the influence of James McNeill Whistler, Edgar Degas, and the French Impressionists. He made his first trip to America in 1876 and quickly became the most sought after portrait painter in Boston and New York. After a trip to Spain and Holland in 1879-80 and a serious study of Diego Velásquez and Frans Hals, Sargent's work took on increasing strength and virtuosity. His interest in the work of Edouard Manet also contributed to the formation of his bravura, expressive technique.

Although he did plein-air landscapes and neoclassical murals, he is known primarily for his elegant portraits of upper class patrons. His fluent and dramatic portrait style was characterized by elongated forms, bravura brushwork, and a willingness to limit himself to observed facts. Sargent's reputation as a portraitist grew through successive submissions to the Paris Salon, although the exotic realism of his most famous portrait, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), (1883-84, Metropolitan Museum of Art), aroused a scandal and caused him to join other American expatriates in London. There a growing audience accustomed itself to his dashing manner and his career prospered. In addition to portraits, he painted at this time many landscape studies, searching to capture elusive effects of light and atmosphere. Several trips were made to America for portrait commissions, and in 1890 he embarked on a mural commission for the Boston Public Library (1890-1919), obtained through his friend, the architect Charles McKim. In the 1890s, Sargent was at the peak of his activity; he was traveling and painting constantly. In 1894 he was elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy. After the turn of the century, a growing dissatisfaction with portraiture led him to devote more time to watercolors, landscapes, and genres, and he remained productive in all these fields until his death in 1925.

Adapted from

  • Eleanor Jones Harvey, "John Singer Sargent, 'Study for The Spanish Dancer'," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Charles Venable (New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 1997), 231.
  • TMS data, DMA electronic record (1982.35), n.d.
  • Gail Davitt, "Biographical essays," DMA research document, 1986-1987, Education files.
  • Steven A. Nash, Dallas Collects American Paintings: Colonial to Early Modern, September 26- November 14, 1982, (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Fine Arts), 67.

Related Multimedia

speaker is director of Adelson Galleries, New York; discusses catalogue raisonne; Antique Arts Society presentation?
speaker is director of Adelson Galleries, New York; discusses catalogue raisonne; Antique Arts Society presentation?

Fun Facts

At the height of his illustrious career as a portraitist, John Singer Sargent announced that he was abandoning this field of art in 1907. In the remaining eighteen years of his life, he would occasionally return to the genre that established his fame, but only produced portraits of close friends or noteworthy individuals.

Web Resources