These are the 12 most famous paintings by John Singer Sargent, who was the leading American portrait painter of the Edwardian era (1901-1910). Sargent created around 900 paintings, more than 2,000 watercolors, sketches, and charcoal drawings. His international reputation as a portraitist reached its peak in the late 1890s as he painted many famous personalities, artists, art dealers, and actresses.
Portrait of Madame X (1884)
This is one of the most famous paintings by John Singer Sargent, if not his best-known painting. It is a portrait of Madame Gaureau, at that time, a famous Parisian beauty. The critics of the end of the 19th century found it erotic and eccentric, as it appeared at the Paris Salon under the title Portrait de Mme*** and was forced to overpaint the subject’s shoulder strap, raise it up and make it look fastened.
One French critic wrote that if one stood before the portrait during its exhibition in the Salon, one “would hear every curse word in the French language”. The young woman depicted, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau is standing in a coquettish pose, revealing a dark dress that was too provoking to the French audience. Today, there are also known multiple watercolor and graphite figure studies of this painting.
Street in Venice (1882)
A series of paintings depicting the daily labors of the Venetian working class was done by Sargent. This oil on wood painting was done in a post-impressionist manner and is set near the Grand Canal in Venice, in the street of the Calle Larga dei Proverbi. The woman depicted on the left is walking, kicking her skirt with her foot, and is being observed by the two men standing in the shadows to her right. Her eyes are looking at the ground, and it seems like she is in a hurry, trying to flee the male glare.
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1893)
This painting shows the confident look of Lady Agnew, who became a celebrity after this painting was done, in a very spontaneous and relaxed posture, which was extremely unusual in contemporary portraiture. The critics describe her direct gaze as “quietly challenging” and she is dressed in a soft, white gown with silk.
El Jaleo (Spanish Dancer) (1882)
In 1879 the artist traveled to Madrid to study the works of a baroque painter, Diego Velázquez. El Jaleo is a painting depicting a Gypsy dancer and musicians. As in his other works, the work was preceded by a series of preliminary studies, focusing precisely on the dancer’s moving posture. This painting is the most theatrical of his early major works, and it seems like it lacks a barrier between the observer and the dancer, creating an illusion that the dance is happening right in front of our very eyes.
Vernon Lee (1881)
Vernon Lee was a pseudonym of Violet Paget, a writer best known for her books on Italian art and supernatural fiction. Sargent and Paget had known each other since childhood because their families have been neighbors in Nice, France. This portrait was painted in a single session that lasted three hours, and he wrote a dedication to her “to my friend Violet”.
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882)
This painting depicts four young girls, daughters of Edward Darley Boit, in their Parisian apartment and it is described as the most psychologically compelling painting of Sargent’s career. The dark interior space and composition that was unusual for a group portrait, remind us of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, which Sargent did copies of.
Theodore Roosevelt (1903)
The 26th President of the United States, oftentimes called Teddy Roosevelt, invited Sargent to the White House for a week to do a portrait of him. The pose of the President was completely spontaneous, and Sargent thought that painting him in this stance, with a hand on the newel was perfect. Roosevelt considered the portrait a complete success and liked it immensely.
The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy (1907)
In 1907 Sargent painted a very lively work that captures the transition between landscape and portraiture. The couple depicted are Wilfrid and Jane Emmet de Glehn, Sargent’s traveling companions and professional artists of that time.
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889)
This oil painting shows a famous actress Ellen Terry during a performance as Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. The leading English actress of the late 19th and early 20th century, Ellen, is depicted as a redhead, wearing a green and blue dress decorated with iridescent beetle wings, made by Ada Netlleship, a British designer. The subject is standing, white-faced, holding King Duncan’s crown above her head.
Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner (1888)
Isabella was posing for Sargent during his visit to Boston in 1888. This painting was also titled Woman: An Enigma and Miss Gardner was asked by her husband not to publicly show the portrait while he was alive. With her straightforward pose and the direct gaze into the eyes of the viewer, she is standing in a very dominant, commanding pose. Her back is set against a Venetian motif background, which is giving the appearance of a haloed icon.
Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood (1885)
Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood remained in Sargent’s studio until his death, along with several works by Monet that he collected over the years. Monet is depicted sitting at an easel painting outdoors. This painting is extremely important for the Impressionist era as it shows the French artist doing what he advocated – painting from nature itself, and as it held a great personal significance for Sargent, it is a symbol of the artistic relationship.
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1886)
During a boating expedition on the Thames in the autumn of 1885, Sargent saw Chinese lanterns hanging among the trees and had an inspiration for this painting. At the time, he began painting it during his stay at the home of the painter F.D. Millet in Worcestershire (UK), and at first, he used his five-year-old daughter Katharine as his model. But she was replaced by Polly (on the right) and Dolly (on the left), daughters of the illustrator Barnard, as they had the exact hair color Sargent was seeking.
The title of the painting comes from the song “The Wreath” by the 18th-century composer of operas called Joseph Mazzinghi, which was often sung by Sargent and his circle around the piano at Broadway.
What famous paintings by John Singer Sargent do you think we should add to this list? Comment below.