Olga's Gallery

John Singer Sargent Biography

John Singer Sargent, son of American expatriate parents, was born in Florence, Italy. He grew up in Europe, and studied painting in the Paris studio of the noted French portraitist Carolus-Duran and at the École des Beaux-Arts. His first visit to the USA took place in 1876. He traveled much throughout Europe to study the art of different countries and times.

Among Sargent's first important clients in Paris were the Paillerons. He painted four portraits for them. Edouard Pailleron, was a noted poet and playwright, and the son-in-law of the editor of a literary journal, Revue des deux mondes. His wife’s family, the Bulozes, collected modern paintings. Sargent painted the portraits of both spouses in 1879.

At the 1884 Paris Salon, Sargent showed his now famous picture Madame X, the portrait of the 23-year-old American Virginie Gautreau. Virginie’s extravagant gown, bare shoulders, and arrogant manner, shocked the public. Critics found the picture eccentric and erotic. After this failure, Sargent dropped his hopes of establishing himself as a portrait painter in Paris. In 1886, he moved to London, where he spent most of his adult life, visiting America only on short trips.

During the next two years Sargent experimented with the Impressionist style. He was a close friend of Claude Monet, whom he painted sketching out of doors (Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood). Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose was really the first piece of public impressionism to be produced in Britain, and for several years after its exhibition in 1887 it remained the most important example of the new style.

In 1888-1889, Sargent “was busy painting the play of light on sunlit water, catching the exact flicker, the ripple of the reflections and their fleeting effect on objects with range. He made several studies of his sister, Mrs Ormond, under those conditions: A Morning Walk, A Gust of Wind. These pictures show a delicacy of touch and a tenderness of color which give way to other qualities in his later work. The charm we see here is not the charm we are accustomed to look for in the work of subsequent years. It is more intimate and personal, more subtle and pervasive. Broken touches, here and there broken color, lightness of key, harmony of tone, unity of effect, and contrast reduced to its lowest terms.” (The Hon Evan Charteris: The Life of John Sargent. William Heinemann. p. 99)

In a few years Sargent became the most admired portrait painter in Britain and the United States. Sir Osbert Sitwell, who sat for Sargent with his family as a boy, summed up his popularity: “…looking at his (Sargent’s) portraits, they understood at last how rich they really were… They had waited, among other things for Sargent to record them, and he snatched many of them from Time’s effacement; the aristocrat with his top hat and his riding whip, his handsome ram’s head and air of dowdy elegance, the fashionable beauties who were beautiful but in so unstylized and fade a manner that it was almost impossible to formulate them upon canvas, and the fashionable beauties who were ugly and so much easier to paint. But all the women in his picture are richly clothed and all have the same harpies’ hands, grasping and ineffectual, with long grey-green talons, and hold, or allow to dangle, the same arm’s-length white kid gloves. Then there are the generals, the statesmen and the viceroys, and a ponderous and pondering author or two, with domed forehead and business man’s jaw, looking out of presentation portraits inexpensive frames…”

Sargent painted more than five hundred portraits. His mature portraits, e.g. Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asther Wertheimer, Mrs. Joseph Chamberlain, etc., showed little evidence of the broken touches of color he had used in the later eighties.

By 1907, Sargent got tired of portrait painting and accepted few commissions. He resumed his travels through Europe and to America. He painted constantly but turned to landscapes, producing more than 1,000 oils and watercolors. He also gladly accepted the more demanding challenge of murals for the Boston Public Library, for the Museum of Fine Arts and for the Widener Memorial Library at Harvard on which he was still working at the time of his death. Sargent died in London in 1925.


John Singer Sargent by Patricia Hills. Harry N Abrams, 1986.

John Singer Sargent by Carter Ratcliff. Abbeville Press, Inc., 2001.

John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist by Trevor J. Fairbrother, John Singer Sargent. Yale Univ Pr, 2000.

John Singer Sargent: The Life of an Artist (Artist Biographies) by Eshel Kreiter, Marc Zabludoff. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2002.

John Singer Sargent: The Male Nudes by John Singer Sargent, John Esten. Universe Books, 1999.

Sargent Abroad: Figures and Landscapes by Warren Adelson, Donna Seldin Janis, Elaine Kilmurray, Elizabeth Oustinoff, Richard Ormond. Abbeville Press, Inc., 1997.