John Singer Sargent
by Patricia Pulham

The artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is best known as a portrait painter of the rich and famous; notable sitters include members of the literati such as the American author, Henry James (1843-1916) whose novella, The Turn of the Screw, remains popular today and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Many of his paintings feature aristocratic women draped in sumptuous silks and satins, serious men in sombre, yet exquisitely tailored attire, and privileged children dressed in ruffles, set against rich fabrics and architectural splendour. In the late nineteenth century, wealthy families such as the Astors, the Carnegies and the Vanderbilts, who came to prominence during America’s ‘Gilded Age’, sought his services. Yet, though born in the United States, whose shores he later visited on several occasions, Sargent lived his life primarily in Europe.

Son of Fitzwilliam Sargent, a doctor, and Mary Newbold Singer, both of whom came from New England families, but left America for Europe in 1854, Sargent was born in Florence on 12 January 1856. Like many other ex-pats, the family spent winters in Rome, Florence or Nice. Sargent’s mother, Mary, was an insatiable culture vulture, and Sargent received what H. Barbara Weinberg has called a ‘Baedeker education’ encouraging her son’s imaginative and creative sensibilities through travel and exposure to the arts. In 1873 Sargent enrolled in the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, and in 1874 moved to Paris where he studied at the atelier of the French painter, Carolus Duran (Charles Auguste Émile Durand, 1837-1917).

In Paris, Sargent’s career flourished until 1884 when he exhibited a portrait of Madame Gautreau, an enigmatic socialite. Dressed in a black satin gown that emphasised her curves and narrow waist, and left her arms and shoulders bare, covered with the merest of jewelled straps, Gautreau’s image outraged the French art world and public alike. While far from shocking to twenty-first century viewers who would deem the garment a beautiful example of stylish couture, in 1884 the dress, coupled with rumours of Gautreau’s infidelities, caused a major scandal. In the context of late nineteenth-century society, Gautreau had been painted in what seemed an undergarment, and Sargent was criticised both for his technical execution of the portrait, and for flouting convention. Many years later when Sargent sold the painting to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, he renamed it ‘Madame X’, the title by which it is now known.

Disillusioned by the controversy and adverse reaction to his work, in 1886 Sargent moved to London. Here, in 1887, he achieved significant success at the Royal Academy with a painting that is still regularly reproduced on greeting cards, Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose, set in a Cotswolds’ garden, in which two young girls in white gowns light Chinese lanterns in the dusk framed by a background of delicate flowers. In the 1890s Sargent became a full member of the prestigious Royal Academy alongside renowned artists such as George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) and John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), and by 1902 the French sculptor, Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), had christened Sargent the ‘Van Dyck’ of his time.

While feted for his portraiture, Sargent was also an accomplished watercolourist, producing striking images of white-hot Spanish streets, sun-kissed Venetian waters, and arid Middle-Eastern landscapes. At the advent of World War I, Sargent became Britain’s official war artist. In 1918, he travelled to France and Belgium and, Gassed (1919), a major work that emerged from this period, can still be seen at the Imperial War Museum in London, a painterly precursor of Wilfred Owen’s harrowing poem, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ (1920), capturing the impact of chemical warfare.

Sargent made London his home until he died in his sleep, aged 69. His body was taken to Brookwood cemetery by the London Necropolis Railway. His gravestone bears the inscription: ‘Laborare est honorare’, to work is to honour, a fitting motto for an artist who not only captured the spirit of an age, but whose later work honoured the sufferings of those who lost their lives in the Great War.

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