John Singer Sargent (1856—1925) is an Italian-American painter of the late Impressionist season whose reputation is narrowly tied to the portrait.
Sargent was born in Florence, to an Italian mother and an American father. In his twenties, he interacted with the Parisian Impressionists (studying under Carolus-Duran) and travelled to Madrid to study Velázquez, and to Haarlem (Netherlands) to see the work of Frans Hals. It is from these artists, and from his study of the great masters at the Louvre, that he derived his brushstroke technique.
All throughout his life, John Singer Sargent sought out travel. Born in Italy and soon moved to America, he lived first in Paris and then London; his voyaging took him across the American Midwest, where he lived for long spells, and to Morocco and the Holy Land. In his French and English sojourns in particular he made great use of the greenery of nature for his settings. This typical Impressionist choice was dictated by a precious feeling for light and colour, and it meant that some of his most celebrated works (such as Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose) required unspeakable hours of labour, preparation, and waiting, followed by short minutes of frenzy until the natural conditions changed again.
Madame X scandal
Portraiture gave him both his midlife triumph and the reputational disaster which preceded it. The unfortunate case of Madame X, a depiction of a Parisian beau in elegant charcoal dress, shown to the public at the Salon of 1884, made him abandon France, ostensibly ruined the life of his young subject and even made him revise his painting in order to move one crucial strap closer to the collarbone. The piece was widely understood as a depiction of an adulteress, because of the seductive air about Madame X’s (Madame Gautreau’s) bare shoulders and her own sensuous reputation. When he finally sold it to the Metropolitan in 1916, Sargent was still requesting that its naming preserve an illusion of anonymity.
It will be noted how John Singer Sargent’s case somewhat mimics the cultural shock of eighteen years before when Édouard Manet first showed his Olympia. In that case too the promiscuous reputation of a woman whom the Parisian public could easily recognise prevented among many the proper reception of the painting as an evocation of myth in the unexalted humanity of the present day. In Manet’s painting to the public was distressed to be confronted brazenly by what was for them sheer immorality. Olympia, indeed, stared them contentedly in the eyes.
Yet Manet, two decades prior, suffered none of the simply disastrous consequences which appear to have befallen Sargent immediately.
Triumph and “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”
By studiously avoiding controversy for the rest of his life (and indeed most artistic eccentricity), Sargent found his fortune in dainty portraits of innocence and warmth. Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose of 1886 is a resplendent example: two little girls (an English friend’s daughters) in the tall grass of a garden lighting Japanese lamps. The unobtrusive sunlight leaves the angelic figures of the girls — white frocks, short hair of dark hay — the lighted lanterns in their hands, and the blossomed lilies around them, to shine on their own. The enchanting sense of movement in the picture is due to the reflections of colour from one object to the other: the shadows of green on the girls’ dresses and hair in particular.
This reorientation signified, for John Singer Sargent, true popularity after several harrowing years of infamy. Artistically, it signalled an artist discovering a safe haven. Sargent’s broad brushstrokes, which had pocked (in his critics’ words) his French works with impressions of porcelain artificiality, finally found proper scope for their effusiveness. And the sense of the accidental capture of a moment, with the colour vibrant all around and the human figure at the centre, enabled Sargent to go on to accomplish portraits of high society and friends which shine before our eyes today like retouched phone-camera pictures on the move.
It must be kept in mind that Sargent became, through the late 1880s and the 1890s, the premier portraitist of Edwardian society in London. A fashion for his portraits led a multitude of aristocrats and celebrities to pay the equivalent of thousands of pounds to have their pictures on the canvas.
By predictable contrast, Sargent was often regarded by the world of art as a relic of Realism, just like Impressionism itself came to be regarded by the end of the 19th century. On such grounds and on the accusation that he was a mere illustrator, Sargent suffered the antipathy of Continental art critics as well as of the Bloomsbury Group.
In an almost private capacity, Sargent continued producing watercolours of the scenes of life that he saw in his voyages across Europe, America, and the Arab countries. They are a less remarked-upon part of his opus, despite their technical excellence and the way they continue his personal narrative of dream-like places, all of which glow with a characteristic affection.
In the 1910s Sargent pursued a project of mural paintings in Chicago, where he had temporarily settled again. Their theme being the progress of religion from polytheism to Christianity, they involved some stereotypical depictions of Judaism which were criticised in the city as antisemitic. Although his imagery in this case seems to be above all an attempt at citing medieval precedents, this last controversy of his life caused him to eventually leave the project uncompleted. In a sort of paradox, Sargent had in the past been noted by society as a philosemite of sorts because of his many Jewish contacts.
John Singer Sargent was in many respects a socialite as well as a traveller. He cultivated friendships with French and American artists and enjoyed, usually in the capacity of the famous portraitist, the company of highly eminent people, such as King Edward VII. Interest in his life and relationships has renewed in more recent times because of the critics’ discovery of his apparent homosexuality.