Artist Biography

John Singer Sargent

(1856 - 1925)

Table of Contents

    By Chelsea DeLay

    I. Biography

    Born in Florence on January 12, 1856, John Singer Sargent was the son of two expatriates, Dr. Fitzwilliam Sargent and his wife Mary Newbold Singer Sargent. Sargent’s nomadic upbringing resulted from his parents’ constant travel throughout Europe; his early exposure to various cultures and languages instilled Sargent with a social ease that enabled him to easily form friendships. Sargent’s mother placed a great importance on nurturing his premature interest in art, essentially laying the foundation for his future career as an artist when she introduced her young son to watercolors. Sargent’s early talent working with watercolors briefly led him to Florence’s Accademia di Belle Arti in 1873, but after one year, the artist moved to France and enrolled at the atelier of French portrait painter Carolus-Duran, who instilled in the young painter a formal, highly-finished approach to portraiture.[1]

    Almost five years passed while Sargent honed his craft under the tutelage of Carolus-Duran, but he also studied drawing for three semesters at the École des Beaux-Arts: fall 1874, spring 1875, and spring 1877.[2] Sargent’s natural ability and amiable personality captured the attention of both his instructors and peers; in 1874, American painter Julian Alden Weir encountered the teenage artist and remarked, “I met this last week a young Mr. Sargent about eighteen years old and he is one of the most talented fellows I have ever come across; his drawings are like old masters, and his color is equally fine. He was born abroad and has not yet seen his country… As his principles are equal to his talents, I hope to have his friendship.”[3] In 1876, the nomadic lifestyle caught up with Sargent—a twenty-year-old American who had yet to set foot within the United States—and in order to retain his American citizenship, he was required to make his first trans-Atlantic journey to America. In May of that year, Sargent traveled to America with his mother and sister Emily; their stateside visit included stops at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition and a trip to Niagara Falls.[4]

    At this point in his career Sargent’s capability as a portrait artist had been confirmed by the acceptance of Fanny Watts for exhibition at the 1877 Paris Salon, and his continuing success at the Paris Salon throughout the next few years brought a tide of portrait commissions from French and international customers. Sargent briefly diverted from portraiture during a trip to Venice in 1880, producing an impressive group of oil and watercolor paintings depicting enchanting scenes of the Italian city. He soon returned to the comfort and ease of portrait painting and his best-known portrait, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), reveals an integration of outside influences with his own style: her side profile is reminiscent of a Velázquez portrait and the figural treatment evokes Manet’s hand, but the boundary-pushing sensuality and dress of Madame Gautreau was completely of Sargent’s own making. When Madame X was unveiled at the 1884 Salon, it caused such a scandal among French critics that Sargent considered giving up his career as an artist. However, rather than end his career as a painter, Sargent chose instead to relocate to London where he continued to garner success as a portraitist.[5]

    American interest in Sargent’s work followed in the wake of Madame X’s public reception and an influx of portrait commissions soon required the artist to make several trips to New York and Boston. In 1888, he spent half of the year in the United States painting over twenty portraits and attending his first solo exhibition at Boston’s St. Botolph Club; the next year, trips to Boston, New York, and Massachusetts resulted in over forty completed portraits and an important mural commission for the Boston Public Library.[6] These extended visits to America were separated by brief returns to England and periodic stopovers at the residence of Monet, whom Sargent is assumed to have first met in 1876 when both artists were in Paris.[7] Monet’s style had a considerable impact on Sargent’s career and the influence of French Impressionism on Sargent’s work became evident in his use of a visibly lighter color palette, consideration of light, and looser brushwork. Dividing his time between America and Europe allowed Sargent to develop a valuable understanding of how to taper his work to the different tastes of his audiences: his European commissions were rendered in a formal, highly-finished hand that met the expectations of the Paris Salons, yet his American pieces catered to a more modern taste that challenged artistic tradition.

    At the turn of the century Sargent began to feel creatively stifled and confined having limited himself to mostly portraiture; in 1907, he resolved to spend less time painting portraits and dedicate most of his artistic attention to his mural commissions.[8] Over the next several years Sargent completed murals for the Boston Public Library, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University.[9] After completing the murals for the Museum of Fine Arts, Sargent had planned to travel to Boston to supervise their installation, but sadly passed away three days before his departure date. Today the legacy of John Singer Sargent lives on in a myriad of esteemed international institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musée du Luxembourg, the Louvre, and the Tate Britain.

    II. Chronology

    • 1856 Born in Florence to Fitzwilliam Sargent and Mary Newbold Singer Sargent
    • 1868–69 Studies with German-American landscape artist Carl Welsch
    • 1870 Spends the summer touring the Tyrol with Carl Welsch
    • 1872 Visits Switzerland and the Tyrol during the summer
    • 1873 Enrolls in the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Italy
    • 1874 Travels to Paris in May, begins training at the atelier of French portrait artist Carolus-Duran
    • Passes the entrance exam at the École des Beaux-Arts
    • 1876 Possibly meets Auguste Rodin and Claude Monet while visiting the Claude Monet exhibition in April at the Durand-Ruel Gallery
    • Travels to the United States in May with mother and sister
    • Returns to Paris in September, resumes studies at the atelier of Carolus-Duran
    • 1877 Spends the summer on a walking tour of Switzerland with artist Carroll Beckwith
    • Rents a studio on rue Notre Dame des Champs with Beckwith for the Fall
    • Enlists with Beckwith to assist Carolus-Duran with The Triumph of Maria de Medici, a government-funded ceiling mural at the Palais du Luxembourg
    • Exhibits first work at the Paris Salon, a portrait of Fanny Watts
    • 1878 Joins the Society of American Artists in New York and exhibits at the organization’s inaugural show
    • 1879 Exhibits at the National Academy of Design, New York, and at the Society of American Artists
    • 1879–80 Travels to Spain and Morocco during the winter and copies works by Velázquez in the Prado
    • 1880 Takes a summer trip with his family to Venice; meets Giovanni Boldini and James Abbott McNeill Whistler
    • 1883 Spends the winter months with Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, and Claude Monet.
    • 1884 Exhibits Madame X, the Gautreau portrait at the Paris Salon
    • 1885 Exhibits with Monet and other impressionist artists at the Galerie Georges-Petit in Paris
    • 1886 Becomes a founding member of the New English Art Club in London
    • 1887 Travels to the United States in September; completes several portrait commissions in Newport, Boston, and Rhode Island
    • 1888 Significant exhibition of paintings held at St. Botolph’s Club in Boston
    • 1889 Made a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur
    • 1890 Receives commission to paint murals at the Boston Public Library
    • 1891 Elected Associate of the National Academy of Design
    • 1894 Elected Associate of the Royal Academy
    • Awarded the Temple Gold Medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
    • 1897 Elected full membership to the National Academy of Design and the Royal Academy
    • Made an Officier of the French Légion d’Honneur
    • 1897–1900 Teaches at the Royal Academy School in London
    • 1901 Sends several of his paintings to the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York
    • 1903 Installs new mural panels in the Boston Public Library
    • Awarded LL.D. by University of Pennsylvania
    • 1904 Elected to the Royal Water-Colour Society
    • 1905 Exhibits 50 works at the Carfax Gallery in London, including Madame X and Nude Egyptian Girl
    • 1909 Awarded the Order of Merit by France and the Order of Leopold by Belgium
    • 1913 Awarded LL.D. by Harvard University
    • 1915 Exhibits 13 pieces at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, including Madame X
    • 1916 The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchases Madame X for £1,000
    • Awarded LL.D by Yale University and a Doctor of Arts by Harvard University
    • The Carnegie Institute holds an exhibition of watercolors by the artist and Winslow Homer
    • 1918 Travels to France in June, stationed on the front lines as an official war artist
    • Invited to accept the Presidency of the Royal Academy, but turns the position down
    • 1922 Installs completed murals for the Widener Library at Harvard University
    • 1924 Major exhibition held in the spring at Grand Central Art Galleries in New York
    • 1925 Passes away from degenerative heart disease; memorial services held at Westminster Abbey

    III. Collections

    • Albright-Knox Gallery, NY
    • The Archives of American Art—Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
    • Art Institute of Chicago, IL
    • Boston Museum of Fine Arts, MA
    • Boston Public Library, MA; murals (Special Collections Hall)
    • Brooklyn Museum, NY
    • Colby College, ME
    • Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, CO
    • Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
    • Des Moines Art Center, IA
    • Detroit Institute of Arts, MI
    • The Fayez Sarofim Collection, TX
    • Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, CA
    • Fogg Art Museum—Harvard University, MA
    • High Museum of Art, GA
    • Imperial War Art Museum, London
    • Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN
    • Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, MA
    • The Louvre, France
    • Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
    • Musée du Luxembourg, France
    • National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
    • The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, MO
    • The New-York Historical Society, NY
    • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
    • Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
    • Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
    • The Society of Swedish Literature Fund, Findland
    • Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, MA
    • Tate Gallery, London
    • Terra Foundation for American Art, IL
    • Uffizi Gallery, Italy
    • Virginia Commonwealth University, James Branch Cabell Library, Special Collections & Archives, VA
    • Widener Library, Harvard University, MA; murals
    • William Kelly Simpson, NY
    • Worcester Art Museum, MA

    IV. Exhibitions

    • 1874, 1877–79, 1884 Paris Salon, France; medal, 1874; honorable distinction, 1878
    • 1878 Society of American Artists, NY; inaugural exhibition
    • 1881 Cercle des Arts Libéraux, Paris
    • 1888 St. Botolphs Club, MA
    • 1889 New English Art Club, London
    • 1893 Royal Academy, London
    • 1899 Copley Hall, MA
    • 1901 Pan-American Exhibition, NY
    • 1903 Boston Museum of Fine Arts, MA
    • 1905 Albright Art Gallery, NY; inaugural exhibition
    • Carfax Gallery, London
    • 1907 Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.; First Biennial Exhibition of Art
    • 1910 Royal Academy
    • Munich; Exhibition of American Art
    • 1912 Toledo Museum of Art, OH; inaugural exhibition
    • 1915 Minneapolis Museum of Art, MN; inaugural exhibition
    • Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, CA
    • 1917 Carnegie Institute, PA
    • 1920 Rhode Island School of Design, RI
    • 1923 Baltimore Museum of Art, MD; inaugural exhibition
    • 1924 Grand Central Art Galleries, NY
    • 1925 Claridge Gallery, London
    • M. Knoedler & Co., NY
    • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; memorial exhibition
    • 1926 Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; memorial exhibition
    • The Royal Academy of Arts, London; memorial exhibition
    • National Gallery, London
    • 1927 The Art Institute of Omaha, NE
    • 1928 The Cincinnati Art Museum, OH
    • 1931 Hackley Art Gallery, MI
    • 1933 Currier Gallery of Art, NH
    • M. Knoedler & Co., NY
    • Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, MA
    • Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, OH
    • 1934–35 College Art Association, NY
    • Toledo Museum of Art, OH
    • Springfield Museum of Fine Arts, MA
    • Louisville Art Association, KY
    • Currier Art Gallery, NH
    • Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, NY
    • Memorial Art Gallery, NY
    • 1938 Boston Symphony Orchestra, MA
    • 1940 Des Moines Association of Fine Arts, IA
    • 1941 M. Knoedler & Co., NY
    • 1942 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
    • 1943 Kleeman Galleries, NY
    • 1944 Berkshire Museum, MA
    • Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art, GA
    • 1945 American British Art Center, NY
    • 1946 Tate Gallery, London
    • 1947 Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, CO
    • 1948 Scott & Fowles, NY
    • The Slater Memorial Museum, CT
    • 1949 Lawrence Hall, Colgate University, NY
    • 1950 Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, OH
    • The Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts, Glasgow
    • 1952 Wadsworth Athenaeum, CT
    • 1953 Munson-Williams Procter Institute, NY
    • 1954 The Art Institute of Chicago, IL
    • The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
    • M. Knoedler & Co., NY
    • 1956 Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, Washington, D.C.
    • 1957 Brooklyn College, NY
    • National Academy of Design, NY
    • Norwich Castle Museum, Norwich, U.K.
    • 1959 The Society of the Four Arts, FL
    • California Palace of the Legion of Honor, CA
    • 1962 The Polytechnic Arts Committee, Cornwall, U.K.
    • 1963 Centre Culturel Américain, Paris, France
    • 1964 The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C
    • Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
    • Worcester Art Museum, MA
    • Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, NY
    • 1971–72 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
    • Albright-Knox Gallery, NY
    • Albany Institute of History and Art, NY
    • Brooklyn Museum, NY
    • 1977 Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, MA
    • Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
    • Union League Club, NY
    • Carnegie Institute, PA
    • National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C.
    • 1980–81 Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
    • Des Moines Art Center, IA
    • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
    • Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
    • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
    • 1981 Terra Museum of American Art, IL
    • 1982 The Century Association, NY
    • 1984 Brooklyn Museum, NY
    • 1985 Amon Carter Museum, TX
    • 1986 Coe Kerr Gallery, NY
    • Royal Academy, London; memorial exhibition
    • 1990 Brooklyn Museum, NY
    • 1998 Tate Gallery, London
    • Brooklyn Museum, NY
    • 1999 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, MA
    • 2000 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
    • Seattle Art Museum, WA
    • The Jewish Museum, NY
    • New Orleans Museum of Art, LA
    • Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, VA
    • 2002 Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrarra, Italy
    • 2003 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
    • Denver Art Museum, CO
    • 2006–07 Museum Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain
    • 2007 Adelson Galleries, NY
    • Museo Correr, Venice, Italy
    • 2010 Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
    • 2013 Brooklyn Museum, NY

    V. Memberships

    • Légion d’Honneur: Chevalier, 1889; Officier, 1897
    • National Academy of Design: Associate, 1891; Academician, 1897
    • New English Art Club: founding member, 1886
    • Royal Academy: Associate, 1894; Member, 1897
    • Royal Water-Colour Society, 1904
    • Society of American Artists: founding member, 1879

    VI. Suggested Resources

    • Cox, Kenyon. “Two Ways of Painting,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 7, no. 11 (November 1912): 205-207.
    • Ormond, Richard and Elaine Kilmurray. John Singer Sargent: The Complete Paintings; Volume I: The Early Portraits, 1874–1889. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998.
    • ———. John Singer Sargent: The Complete Paintings; Volume II: Portraits of the 1890s. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002.
    • ———. John Singer Sargent: The Complete Paintings; Volume III: The Early Portraits, 1874–1889. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003.
    • ———. John Singer Sargent: The Complete Paintings; Volume IV: Figures and Landscapes:1874–1882. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.
    • ———. John Singer Sargent: The Complete Paintings; Volume V: Figures and Landscapes, 1883–1899. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010.
    • ———. John Singer Sargent: The Complete Paintings; Volume VI: Venetian Figures and Landscapes, 1898–1913. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.
    • ———. John Singer Sargent: The Complete Paintings; Volume VII: Figures and Landscapes, 1900–1907. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012.
    • Ratcliff, Carter. John Singer Sargent. New York: Artabras, 1982.
    • Weinberg, H. Barbara, and Stephanie L. Herdrich. “John Singer Sargent: In The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 57, no. 4 (Spring, 2000). 256&sid=21101969679451

    VII. Notes

    H. Barbara Weinberg, “American Painters in Paris, 1860–1900: Urban Encounters and Rural Retreats,” The Magazine Antiques, (November 2006): 121.
    H. Barbara Weinberg and Stephanie L. Herdrich, “John Singer Sargent in The Metropolitan Museum of Art,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 57, no. 4 (Spring 2011): 9.
    Carter Ratcliff, John Singer Sargent, (New York: Artabras, 1982), 42.
    Weinberg and Herdrich, 10.
    Leslie Furth, “John Singer Sargent and Robert Louis Stevenson,” The Magazine Antiques, (November 2004): 161.
    Weinberg and Herdrich, 23.
    Elaine Kilmurray, “Sargent, Money…And Manet,” Sargent and Impressionism (New York: Adelson Galleries, 2010).
    Sarah Cash and Richard Ormond, Sargent and the Sea (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 6.
    Weinberg and Herdrich, 31.

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