John Singer Sargent fulfills the ideal looks of romantic heroes, no matter what year or century it might be. Take a look at his portrait below and see what I mean. You could dress him in historical clothes or a pair of jeans, slap him on the cover of a book and sell it. Hey, what a good idea! Sargent’s life tended to reflect a romantic view of portrait and landscape artists in the 19th century. Hailed as one of the towering 19th century American artists, he spent most of his life abroad in gorgeous locations around Europe.
Sargent’s parents were ordinary English citizens who moved to America. His father was an eye surgeon in Philadelphia when Sargent’s sister died as a toddler. His mother suffered some kind of breakdown after that and felt she needed to travel, so they began traipsing around Europe from a base in Paris.
A stopover in Florence, Tuscany, Italy lasted long enough for Sargent’s birth in January, 1856. His mother persuaded her husband to leave his post in America to become an expatriate in Europe. Consequently, Sargent grew up with the sights and wonders of numerous countries to influence his work.
While the family lived rather modest, quiet lives on an inheritance, they continued to tour galleries, museums, historical sites and outdoor scenes in several places.
Formal education did not work
Sargent’s mother was an artist in her right and she encouraged his artist work. His father gave up trying to formally educate his son, who preferred outdoor activities and artist endeavors to regular school subjects. His parents were smart enough to find a way around these difficulties.
The family settled upon a way to incorporate learning the necessities while engaging in artiest pursuits. This seemed to work well for him and his siblings who were born while they continued to travel extensively.
The result was that Sargent became quite well educated in the arts and music and spoke four languages. Homeschooling worked well in his family and ended up producing a fine artist.
Artist School and Artist Styles
All these experiences filled Sargent’s head with visions of grand vistas, pastoral scenes, and elegant portraits of people from all walks of life. He began formal art studies with Carolus Duran and eventually entered the École des Beaux Arts in France.
Without getting too technical here, Sargent studied some more modern techniques of painting. The tried and true method of drawing first and building up layers of paint was cast aside in favor of painting what you wanted directly onto the canvas. This alla prima method was becoming all the rage in Europe and then taken up by American painters.
At the time he studied in France, Sargent was also fortunate enough to spend time with epitome of the icons of the Impressionist school such as Degas, Monet, Rodin, and Whistler. August company to keep, certainly. And their work left an indelible mark up on the young painter.
Portraiture and Landscapes
Sargent is better known now for portraiture, but his first love was landscapes. His body of work includes sketches of all those things he witnessed in his travels. He sketched buildings, seaside scenes and mountains everywhere. His great love for the outdoors was on full display in the dozens of works he left behind. The subject of his work changed under the influence and direction of his mentor Carolus Duran.
Economics drove the art market then, as now, and people wanted portraits. A struggling young artist had to find patrons who would pay him for portraits, sort of like a day job concept, while he or she continued painting other subjects to build up an acceptable body of work that would be entered for consideration at the Salon.
Portrait buyers would extol the virtues of their young finds among their friends, more commissions would roll in, more money, and more prestige, and all this by word of mouth. The best, and fastest, way for an artist to become known was to keep paying clients happy with a portrait. Sargent’s first portrait was of one of his childhood friends, Fanny Watts that entered the Salon in 1877.
Sargent did break into the Salon upper echelons with an exhibition of his portrait work in 1879, that included a portrait of his mentor Carolus Duran. The commissions started to come in and Sargent knew he would be able to make his livelihood from his art.
The work of Velazquez captivated Sargent and he traveled to Spain to study Velazquez’ style more closely. As his work matured, the influence of Velazquez can be seen especially well in the portraiture work Sargent did with women. The fine details and vivid expressions in his style contributed to his popularity, despite his critics.
His work became more and more sought after and he was able to command substantial sums for it. This was no myth of the starving artist. He worked hard and constantly, maintaining his reputation as a great artist and prolific workman. Most of his work reflects his love of painting women because they were his primary subjects. The dazzling way he portrayed women catches the eye like a fine photograph with exquisite detail.
Drawing, sketching and painting weren’t his only talents; Sargent had another side line of artistic interest that almost overtook his painting. As a consummate musician, he played the piano professionally by accompanying and leading musical productions.
He played the piano to relax his art clients who sat for a portrait in his studio. He was a man amply blessed with artistic skill. In addition, he possessed business acumen as well, because he handled all his own negotiations for his commissions, purchased and cleaned his own supplies, kept up his studio, and handled all his billing, receiving and other financial transactions. He clearly had an amazing work ethic.
As his reputation grew, his commissions grew, and so did his fees. In 1900 he charged at least $130,000 in today’s money for a portrait. And he worked constantly. Known on both sides of the Atlantic, he would work in London in his studio and still travel to the United States and garner work here as well.
As a co-founder of the Art Central Art Galleries in New York City with several other artists, he traveled back and forth across the pond, teaching in New York, working out of his London studio, and sketching all the while. His body of work is so huge and his influence so enormous, I cannot possibly do him justice in a short blog. He was, and remains, one of the towering greats of 19th century American artists who led the way into the realism movement that subsequently followed the Impressionists.
His private life and relationships remain an enigma, although there are rumors and hints about his life. He never married or had a family. He died in 1925.
Sargent lived as an extraordinary artist whose work is beautiful and captures so clearly life a little more than a century ago. I encourage you to look at his work and read about him. Have a good week!