Monday, February 27, 2012

John Singer Sargent

I have always been inexplicably drawn to the paintings of John Singer Sargent. Born in Florence to American parents in 1856, Sargent lived an extraordinary life. His success came as result of the combination of artistic gifts, education, upbringing, and personality with which he was blessed. He spent his life abroad, growing up between Italy, France, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany; when he was eighteen, his family moved to Paris for the benefit of his artistic career. He was gifted with exceptional artistic talent, which his family helped to cultivate by enrolling him in such prestigious schools as the Accademia delle Belle Arte in Florence and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1874, a 22-year-old American art student in Paris named Julian Alden Weir wrote in a letter to his mother:
I met this last week a young Mr. Sargent, about eighteen years old and one of the most talented fellows I have ever come across; his drawings are like the Old Masters, and his color is equally fine. He was born abroad and has not yet seen his country. He speaks as well in French, German, [and] Italian as he does English, [and] has a fine ear for music … Such men wake one up, and as his principles are equal to his talents, I hope to have his friendship.
Before I explore further his drawing techniques, I present my favorite John Singer Sargent painting, painted while Sargent was summering in Capri and Naples:

Rosina, Capri, 1878
Rosina, Capri depicts Rosina Ferrara, a young dark-skinned Capriote model of Greek heritage, dancing the tarantella. The fluidity of the model anticipates one of Sargent's more well-known paintings, El Jaleo, painted in 1872. One of Sargent's major tenets of painting was his insistence on creating many studies before attempting a final painting. The following are all study drawings leading up to his final El Jaleo, a 237 x 352-cm masterpiece:

And finally, El Jaleo:
Followed by his Sketch After El Jaleo:

El Jaleo, like many of his paintings, was inspired by his travels: in this case, a trip through Spain in 1879. Sargent's diligent artistic method is very apparent in his multitudes of studies. His most celebrated works are, like El Jaleo, oil paintings, but he also did plenty of sketches as well as a multitude of watercolors. (In fact, his mother had been an amateur watercolorists, and she encouraged him to pursue art from a young age.)

Rosina, Capri and El Jaleo, while two of my personal favorites--both are so full of life, and movement, and spirit--do not even come close to painting a complete picture of his body of work. Sargent was also a celebrated portraitist who gained international fame over the course of his career. By the beginning of the twentieth century eminent people were clamoring to be subjects of his paintings; in 1905, American Art News observed: "Sargent is one of the busiest men in the world … He declines to take any more orders for portraits because he has taken all that he can possibly complete in his lifetime." Indeed by 1907 he had to enforce a drastic reduction in his load of painted portraits, but he still painted a handful every year. In order to satisfy the demand for his portraits, he began offering charcoal portraits that could be completed in a single half-day sitting. He made more than 600 of these "mugs" between 1900 and 1925.

A "mug:" Lady Helen Vincent, 1905

Despite having friends in high places -- he counted among his friends and colleagues the likes of Gabriel Fauré, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Henry James, Claude Monet, Auguste Rodin, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Ellen Terry, and in 1907 was recommended for knighthood by King Edward VII but declined it on the basis of his American citizenship -- Sargent was always a bit of an outsider. He was an American by birth who lived abroad his whole life. Commentators picked out stereotypical American traits in his works: 'the puritanical mind-set he inherited from his father's seventeenth-century New England ancestors; the quasiscientific factualness that was part of his artistic technique; and the self-reliance and independence that helped him become a national success story' (Fairbrother 16). His social position allowed him an unusually liberal lifestyle, moving between patricians and bohemians easily, and 'his art evidenced an eclectic and changeable blend of academic and progressive tendencies' (16). Eventually, his outstanding talent and critical acclaim isolated him from his peers. He was not religious and never married, instead conducting an elusive and compartmentalized life. He was compared to the Old Masters and even sometimes called the Young Master. His works weave in and out of Realism, Impressionism, Aestheticism, Symbolism, and the Academic tradition, never able to be tied to a single artistic movement. This unfaithfulness to a single movement drew criticism from other artists: that he might have become "the American Degas" if not for his pursuing portraiture (which made him "an inferior Raeburn"), that he "emasculated" Impressionist style, that he was "self-consciously aristocratic and hostile to American customs" and he lacked "the originality and robustness of [contemporary] European innovators."

In spite of all of that, he was unquestionably an incredible artist whose work is timeless and incredibly pleasing.

The following is a selection of my other favorites (although I have yet to meet a Sargent work I do not like). Though this encompasses primarily only subjects of interest to me -- I spent three and a half months in Italy, so I am admittedly particularly drawn to his Venetian watercolors -- even this limited selection shows the variety and versatility of Sargent's work and styles.

A Mosque, Cairo, 1891

Bedouin Women Carrying Water, 1891

Bedouins, 1905

Behind the Salute, 1907

Black Tent, 1905

Constantinople, 1891

Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882

Interior of the Hagia Sophia, 1892

Interior of the Doge's Palace, 1898

Rio dell'Angelo, 1902

Santa Maria della Salute, 1904

Side Canal in Venice, 1902 
Study of Arab Women, 1880?

A Note (The Libreria, Venice), 1902

The Libreria, 1902

Venice, 1902


Fairbrother, Trevor J. John Singer Sargent. New York: Abrams, 1994. Print.

"John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery." John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery. Web. 27 Feb. 2012. <>.

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