The Early Life of John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent was born in 1856 to a wealthy family. His father worked as an architect and builder, and his mother came from a line of prominent Bostonians. The two came from very different backgrounds and had not known each other for very long before their marriage. Charles Sargent was the only child of a successful businessman, and his wife had been left with a sizable inheritance when her own father died. They were upper-class Bostonians, but they were not members of the society that would come to be known as the Brahmins, as John's mother's family was. The Sargents were artists, intellectuals, and thinkers who believed in progress. The Cabots believed in God, tradition, and the importance of public service. Charles and Mary Sargent married on October 26th, 1853 at Trinity Church in Boston. Charles' father threatened to disown him if he went through with it. The couple eventually had seven children: three girls and four boys, all named after saints. They lived at 5 West Cedar Street in Boston until 1861 when they moved to 10 Commonwealth Avenue after Charles inherited his father's house. John was born there on January 8th 1856.

Sargent’s early artistic training

In 1866, at the age of 14, Sargent was sent to Paris, where he entered a studio of a mediocre painter named Carolus-Duran, who had been a pupil of Ingres. A year later he was under the tutelage of Henri Lehmann, a more famous artist who had studied with Gleyre and Lefebvre. In 1870, after his return from Paris, he studied briefly with Lefebvre and then entered the studio of Emanuel Leutze. In 1874 Sargent left for Venice where he studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti from 1874 to 1876. This is where his friendship with John Singer Swan first began. Swan was an American artist living in Venice and Sargent worked as his apprentice on a number of projects. Sargent remained in Venice until 1876. That same year he spent time studying with Jean-Léon Gérôme in Paris before returning to America in 1877. After graduating college, Sargent decided to become an artist rather than a lawyer as his parents wanted. He went to Paris to study art, but found it difficult to live on his small allowance. Sargent continued painting, hoping for success as a portrait painter. He began working with Robert Henri, another American painter who had also studied in Paris. Henri encouraged him to paint en plein air (outdoors), which Sargent did for the rest of his life.

Beginnings of his art career

As a young man in Paris, Sargent was working with the most advanced artists of his time, learning from them how to create a new kind of painting that would be vivid and fresh and immediate. His technical mastery was astonishing he had learned from the best but it was also instinctive. He didn't need to learn how to paint; he could do it without thinking about it, and thus free himself to think about other things: where to place his model, what angle to shoot from, whether to use light or shadow or color to make this line stand out or that one recede. The middle years were Sargent's best years technically brilliant, full of big ideas about art and life, clearly having fun painting pictures that were more ambitious than anything anyone had done before. By then he had become such a good painter that he could afford not to think about it anymore. His early work was of very high technical quality, and his knowledge of the new French school of painting was excellent. His middle period was remarkable for its elegance and refinement, and his late work is distinguished by a vitality that may be more typical of American art than we realize: the sense that painting can be fun and does not necessarily need to be profound.

Sargent's Personal Life

Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, on January 12, 1856. His mother, Mary Newbold Singer, was an American heiress who married an English banker. His father, Henry Sargent, had a comfortable inheritance that allowed him to live a carefree life of travel and pleasure. John was the first of six children that his parents would have together. The family traveled around Europe and lived in Paris where John became familiar with art and artists at a young age. John Singer Sargent is best known as a painter, but his life was as remarkable as his art. An American expatriate living in Europe, he made the most of his talents and opportunities there, and returned to the U.S. to make a great impression there as well. Most of his work is in private collections and not available for viewing by the general public. Most of Sargent's personal life remains a mystery to us today. He never married, and he lived with several men, but we do not know what their relationships were like. His reticence about such matters can be explained by the Victorian mores of his day, but only partially.

Sargent's Women

Sargent's most notable works are his portraits of women. He was not a feminist, but he has been described as the "feminist painter par excellence" for the way he portrayed women and their lifestyle. Sargent was born in Florence, Italy to American parents who were both painters; at his birth, they were working on a commission to paint the portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner. He was trained by his father and showed such talent that he became the family business. He studied at Paris' École des Beaux-Arts, and after his graduation at nineteen he went to London and then to Madrid where he was commissioned to paint Queen Maria Christina. In New York Sargent's career prospered and he became a friend of Oscar Wilde and James McNeill Whistler. He visited the MacDowell Colony and painted numerous portraits of artists and writers there, including Henry James and Mark Twain. Though much influenced by Impressionism, Sargent's work has a more realistic style.

The Art of John Singer Sargent

Sargent was a painter who took on a wide range of subjects and styles, from portraits to murals to landscapes. He was good at all of them, but he thought landscape painting especially was a high art. Sargent's greatest achievement as a landscape artist was a series of paintings called "The Campagna." His sketches show him struggling to represent the sunlight reflecting off the dusty fields. Sargent's art can be seen as a series of experiments with paint. When he began, he was still under the influence of Whistler, who had taught him to use little dabs of color massed together in order to suggest form. As he gained experience, he learned that light and color alone could do the same thing. After that, his progress was gradual; his paintings all look pretty much alike. But the later ones are less fussy and more atmospheric. Paintings from his middle period have an orderly surface, but they are still clearly the product of someone who wants to paint. In his later work there is a sense of ease, as if he finally had nothing left to prove.

John Singer Sargent's Later Years

John Singer Sargent's later years were largely devoted to portraiture, but that doesn't mean he neglected landscapes. His living room was dominated by a large landscape that he painted every year, changing the weather and the season. He also did two other landscape paintings every year, one for himself and one for his patron, Isabella Stewart Gardner. Sargent in fact continued to paint until the day he died in 1925 at age 81. But by then his reputation was in eclipse. He had never really recovered from the departure of his most famous patron, William Randolph Hearst. And when his own paintings began selling poorly, he was forced to rely on portraits to support himself. He did hundreds of portraits in these last years, but few of them are well known today. When John Singer Sargent died in 1925, his passing was noted by The New York Times and then forgotten. It was nearly a quarter of a century before the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a memorial show that brought him to public attention again.

Oil painting reproduction of John Singer Sargent