John Singer Sargent was born in Florence to American parents – Fitzwilliam Sargent a surgeon and Mary Singer a water color artist. He spent his youth breathing the educated atmosphere of his family who, coming from Philadelphia had deliberately chosen to spend their lives traveling through Europe, sacrificing prosperity and security. When John decided to become a painter and enrolled at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence in 1873 his parents were ready to support him and moved to Paris to further his career. In 1874 the eighteen year old and talented John entered the Paris atelier of the portrait painter Carolus-Duran and passed the entrance examination for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1879 he showed a portrait of his teacher at the Salon that brought him an honorable mention. Then, in 1880 he began his travels to Italy, Spain, Holland and Morocco. Upon his return to Paris Sargent made contact with the Impressionists and became friends with Claude Monet, His painting, however, remained faithful to a bold, but not “revolutionary” realism and he became a preferred interpreter of a sophisticated social world. His refined tastes and fine education (he spoke four languages and played the piano) led him to favor a modern, fluid and elegant style of portraits inspired by Velasquez and Manet, for portraying European and American high society. He earned a series of successes at the Salons where he showed his works regularly even though he soon had to leave Paris because of the scandal caused by his famous portrait of Madame Gautreau, that was considered too explicitly erotic. He moved to London in 1886 where he lived in the midst of the small colony of Anglo-American artists at Broadway a remote little village on the Thames, and there he did a series of en plein air paintings. One of these, entitled Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose created somewhat of a sensation among the English public when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1887. That same year he decided to make his first trip to America where his first one-man show was reviewed by Henry James whom he had met in Paris. In the United States he received commissions for large murals in public buildings (Boston Public Library, 1894-1895; Cambridge, Widner Library, Harvard University, 1924-1925). His portraits were shown regularly in London, Boston, New York and Paris (event at the famous Universal Exposition of 1889). Rodin defined Sargent as “the Van Dyck of the era” because of his great popularity in society circles. Some contemporary critics and artists such as Marry Cassat, Degas, Pissarro and Roger Fry criticized the facility of his painting and his total removal from his subjects. After 1907 Sargent stopped painting portraits, instead he traveled abroad and combined painting and pleasure with regular sojourns in Venice, Florence, Lake Garda and in the Alps. After the outbreak of World War I he traveled widely throughout the United States and painted oils and watercolors inspired by the Rocky Mountains and Florida. He returned to Europe for some important public commissions and died in 1925 on the eve of his departure for Boston which like London and New York held a commemorative exhibition of his works.
Fumée d’Ambre Gris
Between the late ‘seventies and early ‘eighties Sargent traveled to Italy, Spain and Morocco seeking inspiration for paintings to show at the Salons. The oriental trend was very much in vogue at the time in academic painting. However, Sargent managed to bring the style of these exotic settings into his personal artistic eclecticism and create a more modern esthetic that already heralded a symbolist concept. The mysterious, lavishly dressed lady is perfuming her clothes with the incense smoking in the brazier. The scene, inspired by a sojourn in Tangiers seems very refined and luxurious its exotic luminosity, with the dominant gray that caresses each form: the woman’s dress, the walls and decorations in the Moorish arch, the silvery tones of the brazier and necklace. This tonal discipline is typical of Sargent’s early stylistic exercises. The paintings from the ‘eighties are, in fact, characterized by a particularly realistic atmosphere created with a limited palette and a prevalence of gray.
The portrait of the English writer, Vernon Lee, the pseudonym of Violet Paget (1856-1935) a prolific novelist, essayist and critic, that Sargent painted in London between 1881 and 1882 is striking because of its “impression” of frankness and immediacy – quite different from the aristocratic style that the artist would use in the years to come. “A mobile face, sketched as if it were seen en passant with the lips and teeth that seem to meet and separate at the same time, while the background is only half filled – to save time” (A. Gnugnoli). The friendship between the artist and writer dated from the early ‘sixties when their families lived in Nice. Sargent continued to correspond with Vernon Lee in spite of the fact that their personalities and intellectual interests diverged with time. The style of this splendid portrait seems to follow an Impressionistic esthetic because of the modernity of the “cut” and rapid execution that seems to fit with Paul Valéry’s observation that required action on the impression “before it disappeared.”
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit
This painting, considered one of the masterpieces of Sargent’s youth can be considered a modern interpretation of Diego Velasquez’s famous oeuvre Las Meninas (1656, Madrid, Prado) that Sargent had faithfully copied in 1879 during his first trip to Spain. Like Las Meninas this, too, is an unconventional portrait. It is rather a “portrayal of atmosphere and suspension, of naturalness and depth in which the four Boit daughters seem to inhabit their own mysterious world in which the observer is an outsider” (A. Gnugnoli). The apparently random arrangement of the figures in the intimate space of the family parlor that seems disproportionately large with respect to the four little girls was studied with attention and precision as were the positions of the lights, shadows and planes. The painting style is fluid, vibrant and elegant and the chromatic virtuosity of the whites creates an almost tactile glow on the parts in shadow.
Sargent met the fascinating, seductive Madame Virginie Gautreau during the autumn or winter of 1882 and immediately wanted to paint her portrait. He worked on the painting during the summer of 1883 at the Gautreau’s summer home in Brittany. When it was finished the splendid painting was shown at the 1884 Salon and became the scandal of the day. In the catalogue it was listed as the Portrait of Madame *** but the public had no doubts as to the identity of the eccentric beauty of the aristocrat whom Sargent had transformed into a stylized, sensual, erotic icon. The unjust denigration of the painting forced the artist to leave Paris and he moved to London. The woman’s body, wrapped in the splendid black satin and velvet gown is rendered with a singular purity and accuracy of line that are almost Renaissance-like. The brilliant flesh tones against the dark background and clarity of the contours invite comparisons with the shapes of Japanese figures. There are many preparatory drawings of this famous painting – ink or watercolor sketches and an unfinished copy in oil – all at the Tate Gallery in London.
The Breakfast Table
It was when Sargent painted interiors that he revealed the Impressionist “lesson”, using an immediate, improvised, almost sparkling style in his rendering of elegant and delightfully observed domestic details. The Breakfast Table, that portrays his sister Violet reading and peeling a fruit, the natural pose, the view from below and the tactile luminosity of the objects, seems more like a snapshot. The prevailing whites and pinks “illuminate” the canvas with a glow that highlights the objects rather than the portrait of his sister who seems barely sketched in. The main subjects of the painting are the roses in the vase, the white tablecloth, the silverware on the table and sideboard, the white porcelain and the chandelier. The female figure is merely a dark note against the darkness coming from the half-open door. This painting makes it easy to understand the words of Henry James concerning Sargent’s work: “the magic, mysterious spectacle of a genius who is on the threshold of his career and has nothing more to learn.”
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose
During his first stay in England, where he was introduced by Henry James in 1884, Sargent spent two seasons in the small colony of Anglo-American artists at Broadway on the Thames. There he experimented with en plein air painting, stimulated by the floral idyll of the English countryside. It had inspired the Pre-Raphaelite painters who, in their works, portrayed the poetry of delicate girls surrounded by nature in bloom. The esthetic of this work, done entirely outdoors, strongly feels the influence of this narrative and realistic English culture as opposed to French Impressionism. The two little girls, Polly and Dolly, daughters of the artist’s friends are trying to light paper lanterns in an atmosphere of ambiguous light, between the evanescent and pinkish twilight and the artificial glow of the lamps. Their pure, delicate beauty and their virginal, white dresses blend harmoniously with the flowers – carnations, lilies and roses – that surround them. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887 the painting marked the relaunch of Sargent’s career as a portraitist in a cosmopolitan dimension in a place as difficult as England that was traditionally hostile to foreign influence.
Mr. and Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson
This beautiful and eccentric portrait of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) and his wife dates from Sargent’s stay in England. Painted in the Stevenson home at Skerryvore (Bournemouth) during the summer of 1885, this double portrait is bizarre and not at all conventional. The thin writer, with an amused look is in the middle of the canvas. He is not in a static pose: he is nervously crossing his drawing room while his wife, wrapped in an oriental-style shawl is seated on the right and is barely visible. There are only hints of the domestic setting: a Turkish rug on the floor, the door is partly open and we can see the entrance and stairs leading to the floor above. The dark, bare walls behind Stevenson emphasize the light from his face and bony, expressive hands. The author, whose works include the successful novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), was, with Henry James a great admirer of Sargent’s paintings, especially the eccentric and witty aspects of his inspiration.
W. Graham Robertson
In the ‘Nineties Sargent, who had a large studio in Tite Street (near Oscar Wilde’s home), would become the “image-maker” of that opulent, decadent Edwardian society, and the last superb master of the great English portrait tradition. His style would attain a total mastery of expression and realism through his renderings of bright, magnetic light and his daring, powerful brushstrokes. And we see it in this magnificent picture, an icon of style and taste, depicting W. Graham Robertson, designer and a man of the theater, wearing a long redingote. The mannerist verticality of his body and the veiled languor of his expression that reveals that mental state the English called “spleen” reflect that decadence of the period that James Abbot McNeill Whistler had celebrated in his contemporary portraits of Robert de Montesquiou. This great fin-de-siècle portraitist seems to want to go over the aristocratic and intellectual attitudes and the elegant, virtuoso poses of the XVIII century neoclassical tradition.
Jane de Glehn in a Gondola
During his European travels, Sargent found Venice to be ideal subject and “muse” for his watercolors. With fresh, clear tones he rendered the infinite subtleties of reflections on water, the fascinating and discreet magnificence of the magical city’s architecture and the silent charm of its little details. He often painted from a gondola – rendering the vertical façades of the palazzos from the oblique plane of his floating studio. Here, however, he shifted his attention from buildings to live subjects. The model was Jane de Glehn, wife of his friend, the artist Wilfred de Glehn, captured in a gondola against a delicate background of the blue waters of the lagoon. The facial features are barely sketched in between the more obvious chromatics of the hat and brown overcoat. With respect to the almost film-like quality of the views of Venetian monuments and palazzos, here the impalpable quality of watercolor becomes even more evanescent to merge volumes, shapes and planes in a light, delicate sfumato that bathes the surface of the paper.
The years from 1907 to 1914 were a period of inexhaustible creativity for Sargent. He painted for his own exclusive pleasure, with curiosity and energy as he traveled through Italy and the Mediterranean. His fervid imagination and experimental freedom inspired him to produce about one hundred oils and over seven hundred watercolors, some of which he sold to American museums. He painted everything he saw and observed even casually, like a tourist taking snapshots with a camera. However, it is also true that the artist selected his subjects on the basis of the effects he wanted to achieve with light and color, with a quick, warm brushstroke and an almost palpable selection of colors. In this stately work entitled Cashmere, that was exhibited at the Royal Academy, Sargent arranged the shawl-draped female figures against a background without details, with the solemn, mysterious immobility of a classic frieze. He abandoned the realism of his earlier works for an almost abstract style that was in harmony with the decorative purpose of the murals he was painting at the time for the Boston Public Library (Frieze of Prophets, 1892-1895).
Two Girls in White Dresses
Roger Fry, critic and supporter of the avant-garde who derided Sargent’s work described his output from 1907-1914, dedicated to impressions of his travels, as “the most common vision of a medium-high tourist.” This comment is partly true, in that Sargent’s viewpoint can at times seem extremely conventional and prosaic, especially the paintings of a woman reclining or asleep in a natural setting vibrating with light and color. Sargent’s summer sojourns in the Alps did, however, inspire an unconventional and objective rendering of the theme enriched with exotic fantasy. In the foreshortened perspective of >Two Girls in White Dresses, languidly sprawling and invested by light, the detail that emerges and triumphs is the dynamism of the scrolls emphasized by the oriental style shawl embracing the models contrasting with the passivity of their abandonment to reading or repose. The paisley shawl that Sargent had used as an exotic touch in other paintings was a favorite also of Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres who used it several times, as in Madame Rivière, 1805, Paris, Louvre.
Villa Torre Galli: la loggia
During the summer of 1910 Sargent traveled through Italy – Florence, Venice, Rome and the Alps – and did paintings, sketches, and watercolors of picturesque details of buildings, monuments, villas and gardens. Beneath the loggia of Villa Torre Galli, the golden light from the garden on the right, beyond the columns, bathes the artists at their easels, the marble Venus and the seated woman in the white shawl who is reading in the foreground in sparkling reflections. There is another painting of this place, from the same angle (Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.) where the middle of the composition is taken up by a table covered with a white cloth and two ladies chatting as they breakfast. Sargent’s Italy comes through in the natural, spontaneity of the poses, in this yellow summer light that embraces everything, in this search for a scene to paint with chromatic intensity and fluidity and with a fascination for the past in the incandescent light of the present.