John Singer

United States • 1856−1925
John Singer Sargent (12 January 1856, Florence, Italy — 14 April 1925, London, Great Britain) was a painter, who considered himself an American, but most of his life he spent in Great Britain. In childhood and adolescence, he travelled with his parents, who encouraged John’s passion for painting. He lived in Paris for 12 years, and there he got his basic art education. He became a famous portrait painter but after the scandal with his work Portrait of Madame X, he had to leave London. He travelled and worked a lot in London and USA until his death.

Creative features of the artist John Singer Sargent: he gained the world renown as a portrait painter. After the passion for impressionism style, he started to devote more time to landscape paintings, often refusing portrait commissions. He painted a lot of watercolours when traveling.

Famous paintings by John Singer Sargent: Portrait of Madame X, Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, Portrait of Carolus-Duran, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, Shipping, Majorca.

When Auguste Rodin saw the portrait of the three young Misses Hunter, painted by John Singer Sargent in 1902, he named the painter “Van Dyck of our age”. However, immediately after the his death in 1925, the opinion of him among artists changed dramatically for the worse. This happened, in particular, with the help of his former friend, influential art critic Roger Fry, who considered Sargent’s works inappropriate and irrelevant to the era of modernism. So his realism almost instantly was declared anachronistic and superficial, and he was believed no more than a successful careerist, who satisfied whims of aristocrats.

One of the most successful and venerated artists of his day was forced out by Matisse and Picasso. His workmates called John Sargent a shallow Gilded Age flatterer and a cunning craftsman. Camille Pissarro once said with disdain, “He was not an enthusiast but rather an adroit performer.” By that time, only his canvases were speechless evidence of his undeniable talent and mastery. A few decades later they took their place in museums and galleries, and were sold at auctions for millions of dollars, equating Sargent with the world classics.

The Inherited World

John’s parents grew up in the United States and, despite the fact, that he lived in Europe for most of his biography, he considered himself an American. The artist’s father Fitzwilliam was a doctor from a colonist family, who lived in Philadelphia. In 1850, he married Mary Newbold Singer, and four years later, the couple went on a journey around Europe, which eventually lasted their entire life. The tragedy made the spouses leave their motherland: through the change of scenery Fitzwilliam and Mary hoped to recover from the death of their firstborn. They intended to return to the United States after a while, but eventually they became expatriates, periodically moved from one European country to another. On 12 January 1856, their son John was born in Florence.

Actually, Sargent grew and developed in all Europe at once. His formative years passed in travelling around France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Spain. According to his close friend Henry James, who, by the way, also became an eternal nomad following his parents, such Baedeker education (this name became a household name for the guidebook) made John a civilized polyglot from the top to toe.

John once said that his earliest memory was a dark red cobble on a pavement in Florence, which Little John was obsessed with. His passion for drawing arose at his early age. The boy’s mother, who was an amateur artist, encouraged the development of John’s natural talent, generously supplying him with plots for drawings in numerous travels. His father taught him geography, arithmetic, reading and other necessary disciplines. He accompanied John to Paris in the spring of 1874, when a young man, who had improved his skills at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, decided to continue his education in the centre of European art.

Confession and Frankness

John stayed in the French capital for long 12 years, but remained faithful to family traditions and continued to travel around Europe and even overseas to his historical homeland. In Paris, a young artist Carolus-Duran (Charles Auguste Émile Durand) became his mentor. He encouraged his students to abandon underdrawings and paint immediately on the canvas, providing the artwork with freshness and immediacy of the outline. John expressed gratitude to the teacher, making him the hero of his first “adult” portrait. The work was presented at the Paris Salon the same year, and he began to gain popularity as a portrait painter.

The turning point in his career was 1884, when he presented the portrait of Madame X to the public in the gallery. The audience easily recognized Virginie Gautreau. The artist hoped to achieve even greater popularity by this canvas, but he got the opposite effect. It was not about excessive frankness of the portrait. It is worth mentioning that two decades before the Madame X, Édouard Manet was in the centre of the scandal because of Olympia and The Luncheon on the Grass (which was rejected by the Salon, by the way). By the moment, it took a lot to shock with the nude. While Sargent dared to portray the self-confident and almost predator-like sexual attraction of a married woman from beau monde. It was the frankness that the French society of that time was not going to forgive. Since then, he never allowed himself to dare.

The Garden Gate Portrait

After the scandal with Madame X, orders, formerly bestowed on the artist fast and furious, gradually ran low. Oddly enough, this period was very productive for John Sargent, giving him some creative freedom. He painted his friends and their children (Auguste Rodin, 1884, Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife, 1885, Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood, 1885, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, 1886), took part in impressionist projects and achieved the long-awaited opportunity to work in the open air, spending summer months in Worcestershire.

In 1886, he finally moved to London, thinking that the British capital would be more hospitable than Paris. However, the bad fame was ahead, and the rich Englishmen were not too anxious to order their portraits. While Americans posed to him with pleasure, when Sargent travelled to the United States in 1887 and 1889.

Finally, the British had to surrender and admit his talent, and he began to gain the lost popularity. But over time, Sargent became more and more tired of portraits. He still travelled a lot and painted stunning landscapes from all over the world. During the period from 1907 to 1910, the artist completely refused to take portrait commissions. He even once said to a prospective client that he would rather paint her garden gate, than her face. Sargent dedicated his free time to painting murals for the Boston Public Library and Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In addition, he created many landscapes and genre scenes in watercolour, drawing inspiration from numerous trips. After a long break, he returned to the sea landscapes (Shipping, Majorca, 1908, White Ships, 1908). For the first time, the heroes of his works were animals (Saddle Horse, Palestine, 1905, White Ox at Siena, 1910).

The Life Without Relationship

We know ridiculously little about any relationships of Sargent, except for friendly ones. He was never married but was rumoured to be “almost engaged” twice. Whatever the truth, the painter never got a family. This fact, as well as the impressive number of artworks with naked men depicted, not exhibited in public, allowed critics and commentators to make assumptions about his sexual orientation. In fairness, it must be said, the painter has made no less images of nude women. However, there is no single confirmation of romantic relationships with anyone. He protected his privacy zealously, avoided interviews and by the end of his life he shredded all his personal correspondence, thus only leaving no biography but the memories of his friends for the descendants. And they, in turn, agreed to one thing: John Singer Sargent, who died asleep at the age of 69, was head over ears in love and eternally engaged with painting.

Author: Yevheniia Sidelnikova
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