Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Art History: John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

“Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend.”
~John Singer Sargent

The world’s most recognized painters list seldom includes Americans--an exception is made for John Singer Sargent. An American expatriate born in Florence, Italy, Sargent studied art and painting in Italy and Germany, and did not visit the United States until he was twenty and then later in life he traveled extensively throughout the United States painting many watercolor landscapes, oil portraits of two U.S. presidents (Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson), and three portraits of Robert Lewis Stevenson, and a portfolio of detailed charcoal sketches for murals to decorate the Boston Public Library.

Boston Public Library Murals

In 1874, Sargent traveled to Paris to work with Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran and exhibited his work at the Paris Salon in the early 1880s. Sargent’s area of expertise was oil and he specialized in portraits, many commissioned by wealthy and famous society families including the French artists Albert Besnard (1849-1934) and his wife Charlotte Bubray (1855-1931) depicted in Sargent’s portrait, Fete Familiale (The Birthday Party).

Fete Familiale (The Birthday Party)

In his era, he was considered a very progressive artist because rather than spending his time on detailed under drawings [and then painting] his subjects, he went straight to the canvas with a full brush of paint. His style was influenced by and later compared with the work of the Spanish painter, Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). Like Velazquez, Sargent explored both realism and impressionism in his work as evidenced in the commissioned portrait entitled The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

In 1884, Sargent caused a scandal in the art world and Paris society circles with his most famous painting of the Paris socialite, Madame Gautreau, Portrait of Madame X. The young woman’s family demanded that the original painting be removed from exhibition in the 1884 salon because they considered his depiction of an off-the-shoulder strap on her dress, the very pale color of her skin and the angle of her stance far too provocative for a public display. Rebuked by conservative Paris art critics, Sargent removed the painting, repainted the dress strap--now shown modestly on the top of the shoulder--and kept the portrait for over twenty years before selling it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Madame X was not Sargent’s first or only avant-garde portrait of a beautiful woman but it was his personal favorite and is considered by many to be his best work.

Portrait of Madame X

After the negative reaction to Madame X, Sargent left Paris and moved to London in 1866. He quickly gained a following for new portrait commissions of the social elite, and exhibited pieces of his work as an associate of the Royal Academy, later becoming a full member. Not just a painter of the wealthy, Sargent was comfortable moving in many social and cultural circles. He painted Italian peasants, Spanish soldiers, African-American laborers, and Gypsy street children. Sargent also formed friendships with a number of famous artists including Paul Cesar Helleu and his wife Alice, Auguste Rodin, William Merritt Chase, Edwin Austin Abbey (his colleague during the Boston library mural years) and Claude Monet whom he painted in his own impressionistic piece, Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood.

Street in Venice, Smoke of Ambergris

By 1907, Sargent decided he no longer wanted to paint portraits and concentrated instead on landscapes. Traveling the world, he found inspiration for his paintings in every place he visited. Multiple visits to the United States resulted in an exhibit of eighty-six watercolors in New York City in 1909; eighty-three were then acquired by the Brooklyn Museum. Sargent also created his series of oil murals as decorations for the walls of the Boston Public Library during this period. In 1925, during the planning for one of his many trips from London to Boston, Sargent died of a heart attack in his sleep.

The Chess Game

During his lifetime and career, while other artists were following the movements of Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism, John Singer Sargent developed his own style as a Realist.
His work was disapproved of and even rejected by many art critics but his popularity among his friends and the people he painted for was undeniable.

Venetian Glass Workers

Many major museums have exhibited the works of John Singer Sargent since the 1960s, among them the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The National Gallery of Art Washington, and the National Gallery, London. In addition, his popularity is still alive and well with modern day art collectors who have continued to purchase his paintings for very high prices. Two famous examples include, Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife, which sold in 2004 for $8.8 million, and Group with Parasols (A Siesta) (1905), sold in 2004 for $23.5 million—almost twice the estimate of its appraised value.

Group with Parasols (A Siesta)

Copyright Tina Pfeiffer 2009 - do not use the text in this post without my written permission.


chelsea said...

One of my all-time favorite artists!

Char said...

we have a Sargent in our museum and it is gorgeous

Sam said...

Tina! Singer Sargent is one of my all time favourite Victorian painters! Funnily enough, I was looking at a book about him today in a bookshop! That painting of Madame X caused quite a scandal when he unveiled it.I will come back and read your terrific article in more detail later today! Many thanks!

Julie Magers Soulen said...

I love art history! Thanks for sharing!

Pfeiffer Photos said...

hi chelsea--I love him, too, this article is from a term paper I wrote last spring, glad you liked it. :)

Pfeiffer Photos said...

char - lucky you; love to see his work in real sometime!

Pfeiffer Photos said...

hi sam! leave another comment after you read it and let me know what you think...thanks for the first, too!! ;-)

Pfeiffer Photos said...

hey's my major and I'm loving learning about all of it--you're very welcome; these are a regular feature on the blog now, too. :)

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