John Singer Sargent

Born 1856. Died 1925.
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John Singer Sargent Biography

Spending much of his life traveling or living in Western Europe, John Singer Sargent was an American artist with an international background, and his far reaching travels brought him a broad range of sources for influence. He was known for his watercolors, his facility with the brush, and his portraits of socialites – though many of his best-known works were considered controversial. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he remained, in essence, a Realist painter who synthesized the portraiture of Diego Velazquez, Frans Hals and Rembrandt, with an acknowledgement of and slight experimentation with Impressionism.

Born in 1856 in Florence, Italy, to American expatriates, Sargent studied in Paris under Carolus Duran, who helped Sargent develop his ability to work alla prima, or using wet paint on wet paint without preliminary sketches; according to Sargent, “the thicker you paint, the more it flows.” Beginning in the late 1870s, Sargent began traveling around Europe, and painted lush countryside views through the popular plein air technique, or painting outside. He became well known for his portraiture in the United States and in Europe, and gained attention and patronage from socialites; however, his Madame X portrait (1883–1884), which he completed without a commission, caused a scandal at the Salon of 1884 for, essentially, its modernism. His treatment of pictorial space and flat forms and colors brought him considerable criticism, although eventually his portrait commissions returned to a consistent pace.

Settling in London in the 1890s, Sargent was beloved by English aristocrats and the artist community. He spent the final decades of his life successful enough that he could refuse portrait commissions, focusing instead on major projects which most interested him – largely murals for public spaces in the United States such as Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, Harvard University and the Boston Public Library.

Together with Walter Leighton Clark and Edmund Greacen, Sargent co-founded the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York City three years before his death in 1925. His works have been the focus of major grand scale exhibitions around the west, and his paintings can be found in the permanent collections of the Tate Gallery, London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, among others. The demand for his paintings during his lifetime has only grown since his death; Group with Parasols, 1905, sold at Sotheby’s in 2004 for $23.5 million, at double the estimate.

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