John Singer Sargent – One of the Greatest American Realist Painters

John Singer Sargent was one of the most venerated American ‘Realist’ painters, sculptors, and drafters of his time. He was born on January 12, 1856, in Florence, Italy, to an expatriate American couple. Sargent’s parents, father, FitzWilliam, an eye surgeon, and mother, Mary, a singer, desired to settle in Europe and therefore, John Singer Sargent had the influence of European culture despite his American lineage. John’s mother, an amateur artist, played a significant role in introducing him to painting. He did not get a formal education, but had gained immense knowledge in art, music, and literature (French, Italian, & German) through his short excursions across the Europe.

During 1874-1878, a famous French artist, Carolus-Duran, tutored Sargent. Duran taught the artist the direct application of brush on canvas, a painting technique earlier invented by Diego Velazquez. The works of John Singer Sargent were initially themed on landscapes and buildings, which later graduated to portraits painting under Duran’s guidance. John’s first portrait painting was of his friend, Fanny Watts, in 1877, while in 1879, he painted that of Carolus-Duran. Soon after, the artist visited Spain to study Velazquez’s works. Spanish Music and Dance also fascinated him, which was well reflected in his later paintings like “Al Jaleo (1882).”

Upon his return in 1880s, Sargent was commissioned for many portraits. His richly textured and versatile paintings made him a very sought after portrait artist. His masterpiece, “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882” shows four young girls of Edward Darley Boit. His other notable portrait, “Lady with the Rose (1882),” was a painting of Charlotte Burckhardt, with whom John supposedly had a romantic relationship.

Sargent started sending his paintings, such as “Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881)” and “Mrs. Henry White (1883)” to the Royal Academy in England. He later moved to London in 1882. In 1884, he painted his most controversial, “Portrait of Madame X.” The French society heavily decried the work, forcing the painter to return to London. By 1885, he nearly stopped getting French commissions. He visited Monet in 1885 and created the famous painting, “Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood,” depicting his fascinating use of colors. From here on, the English patrons unhappily labeled him as an ‘Impressionist’ painter. Sargent’s ‘Realist’ painting, “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1887),” depicting two young girls lighting lanterns, however, was an instant success and hugely leveraged his recognition as a brilliant portrait painter. He held his first solo show at Boston, in 1888. His other notable portrait paintings were “Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife (1885),” “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892),” and “Mrs. Hugh Hammersley (1892).” The much-appreciated John was made an ally of the Royal Academy in 1893.

In 1900, Sargent painted one of his most famous masterpieces, “An Interior in Venice,” a portrait of Curtis family and its palatial home. In 1907, the artist shut shop officially and was back to painting his first love, landscapes. The same year, he refused the knighthood to keep his American citizenship. During 1915-17, he even stayed in the US. Before his death on April 14, 1925, in London, the artist painted his last portrait of “Grace Curzon, Marchioness Curzon of Kedleston.”

John Singer Sargent, an ever bachelor, had a magnificent career, in which he created around 900 oil paintings and over 2,000 watercolors. He also made the portraits of two American presidents, “Theodore Roosevelt” and “Woodrow Wilson.” This ‘Realist’ painter sold his portraits handsomely at as high a price as $US 11 million. Recently, in December 2004, “Group with Parasols (A Siesta) (1905)” was sold for $US 23.5 million. During 1890-1916, the artist even made several charcoal sketched portraits and called them “Mugs.” His ‘murals’ orient the walls of the Boston Public Library. Admirers, critics, and many art galleries heavily appreciate and respect the scrupulous works of John Singer Sargent. He once quoted, “You can’t do sketches enough. Sketch everything and keep your curiosity fresh.”