John Singer Sargent

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John Singer Sargent (1903)
Self-portrait, oil on canvas, 1906

John Singer Sargent (* 12. January 1856 in Florence ; † 14. April 1925 in London ) was considered the most important American portrait - painter of his time. At the turn of the 20th century he was the most sought-after, celebrated and most expensive portrait painter worldwide. His life's work includes around 900 oil paintings, 2000 watercolors and countless sketches and charcoal drawings. His extensive travels are also reflected in his work. After his training in Paris he lived mostly in London, but he traveled to continental Europe from Norway to Corfu, the Middle East and returned several times to the USA.

Sargent's childhood was unusual. His parents lived in Europe for health reasons and seldom stayed longer in one place. Sargent received little formal schooling because of this unconventional way of life. His career has not been entirely free from controversy. His portrait of Madame X , which he submitted during his career in the Salon de Paris in 1884 and which was supposed to underpin his position as a portrait painter, caused a scandal. Sargent was praised again and again for his technical abilities, especially his ability to paint with a brush, which was admired in his later years, but also earned him the accusation of superficiality.


Family background

John Singer Sargent in his Paris studio next to his painting Madame X , photographed by A. Giraudon, around 1883-4

John Singer Sargent was the second child of doctor FitzWilliam Sargent and his wife Mary Singer. The couple, who married in 1851, originally lived in Philadelphia, where FitzWilliam Sargent had a small practice, wrote regular medical articles, increasingly specialized in ophthalmology , and had beds at Wills Hospital. The couple's first daughter, baptized after their mother and maternal grandmother, Mary, was born 13 months after they were married. Her death almost two years later caused the couple to completely change their lifestyle. Mary Singer collapsed after her daughter died, feeling that only living abroad would enable her to regain health. The couple decided to live in Europe for a while. On September 13, 1854, the couple arrived in Liverpool with Mary Singer's mother and spent their first European winter in Pau , a town in the French region of Aquitaine . FitzWilliam Sargent had continued his medical studies in France after his return, but in the autumn of 1855 he was persuaded by his wife and mother-in-law to travel to the European continent. They traveled via Paris to Florence, where they rented Casa Arretini in Lungarno Acciaioli towards the end of October or beginning of November. It was in this house that John Singer Sargent was born on Saturday, January 12th, 1856. The botanist Charles Sprague Sargent was a distant cousin of the artist.

The early years


Oystercatching in Cancale, 1878. One of Sargent's early oil paintings
Dans les oliviers, also 1878

FitzWilliam Sargent informed Wills Hospital early in 1857 that he would not be returning to Philadelphia anytime soon. The reason for this decision was the wish of Mary Singer, who still did not feel healthy enough to start the long journey across the Atlantic. However, John Singer Sargent's biographer Olson states that Mary Singer was healthy enough to have five children between 1856 and 1870. John Singer Sargent's siblings were born in 1857 (Emily Sargent, Rome), 1861 (Mary Winthrop Sargent, Nice; † 1865 in Pau), 1867 (FitzWilliam Winthrop Sargent, Nice; † 1870) and 1870 (Violet Sargent, Florence).

The Sargent family usually stayed in a town for no more than a few months - Mary Sargent seldom felt comfortable in one place for longer, her nomadic lifestyle was only shaped by the desire to avoid extreme temperatures, so that during the summer months she mostly lived near and in the mountains Winter stayed in southern regions of Europe. From the mid-1860s onwards, they lived in a rented apartment in Nice's Rue Grimaldi for several years in a row during the winter months, but during the summer they moved from place to place unchanged, so that the family had to pack all their belongings several times over the course of a year. The Sargents were by no means wealthy. Aside from the dividend FitzWilliam Sargent received from some of the stockholdings, until 1859 they lived on the interest of a small fortune that Mary Singer inherited in 1850 after her father's death. In 1859, Mary Singer's mother died, leaving her entire fortune to her only child. This second inheritance, for a total of $ 45,000, enabled the couple to have a decent but ultimately modest life.

School attendance was not possible for the couple's children due to the nomadic way of life. FitzWilliam Sargent taught his children himself. On September 16, 1861, he wrote to his mother about John, his eldest son:

"Johnny [...] prefers climbing & hang-gliding to spelling - and, to be honest, that's why I like him even more."

- FitzWillilam Sargent, 1861

Art history attributes it to Mary Sargent that her son developed an affinity for painting. In fact, drawing and water color were part of her constant pastime and she encouraged her son to dare to tackle difficult subjects. The illustrations drawn by her husband himself for his specialist book On Bandaging, and Other Operations of Minor Surgery , published in 1848, show, however, that Fitzwilliam Sargent was the more painterly talented parent.

The family's nomadic lifestyle meant that they had few friends. An exception was Violet Paget , the daughter of a Scot who had moved to France after the death of her first husband and who, like the Sargents, spent a lot of time in Nice, who the family met in 1866 and who became close friends with John Singer and Emily Sargent. The friendship lasted for many years, also supported by the fact that Violet Paget and her mother led a similarly unsteady life as the Sargents and often settled in the same cities as the Sargents. Violet Paget's portrait, painted in 1881, is one of Sargent's early works.


Violet Paget alias Vernon Lee , childhood friend of Emily and John Singer Sargent, portrait from 1881

In November 1868, the Sargent family gave up Nice as their winter quarters and stayed in Rome during these months, where Violet Paget and her mother lived from 1868 to 1869. The 13-year-old John Singer Sargent was briefly a student in the studio of a painter whom FitzWilliam referred to in his surviving letters and notes as either an “artist friend from Rome” or a “German landscape painter”. Art history has identified him as Charles Feodor Welsch , whose watercolors John Singer Sargent faithfully reproduced in the morning hours of his class, but, according to Sargent's own statements, was primarily occupied with getting wine and beer for Welsch from the nearby shops. In the summer of 1871, however, Welsch and John Singer Sargent went on a joint study tour through Tyrol.

Dresden and Florence

In the late autumn of 1871, FitzWilliam Sargent decided that the family should spend the winter in Dresden. He and his wife had spent most of the winter in southern Europe since 1854! The decision for Dresden was based on his assessment that Dresden had one of the best art schools in Europe. London was too expensive given the family's limited income; because of the Franco-Prussian War , Paris was also out of the question. The always sickly Emily, who suffered among other things from a deformed spine, became seriously ill during her stay in Dresden and did not recover until February 1872 to such an extent that her parents no longer had to fear for their lives. The family returned to Florence in September 1872; John Singer Sargent was initially again a student of the Accademia delle Belle Arti , a mediocre and poorly organized art school that stopped teaching a little later. In Florence, however, lived a large community of artists and John Singer Sargent began to take lessons from the American Edwin White together with Frank Fowler and Walter Launt Palmer (1854–1932) . Sargent's biographer Olson emphasizes that the importance of these lessons lay primarily in the fact that Sargent was working for the first time with contemporary American painters who had received part of their studies in the United States and major art schools. What they all had in common was that they should leave Florence as soon as possible.


John Singer Sargent: Portrait of Carolus Duran, 1879
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit , 1882. Sargent's early Velázquez-inspired masterpiece

In May 1874 the Sargent family moved to Paris. With this move, for the first time, the focus was less on considerations regarding the health effects on individual family members, but on the adequate training of John's talent. The family accepted that Paris was still clearly marked by the Franco-German War. There were hardly any trees left in the city, which had been besieged by Prussian troops for several months during the war. Many buildings showed traces of acts of war and the city was still under martial law . In May 1874, FitzWilliam Sargent and his eighteen-year-old son went to the painter Carolus-Duran in the hope that Carolus-Duran would be willing to accept John Singer Sargent as a student. His son had decided very quickly for this training studio - according to Stanley Olson also because he had to fear that his family would lose interest in Paris, as they did in Dresden and Rome before, and move on.

Carolus-Duran had made his breakthrough as an artist in 1869 with the portrait of Mme *** and was now one of the most sought-after portraitists in France. Carolus-Duran, who immediately accepted Sargent as his student, had not started teaching until 1873. He had not yet built a reputation for being a teacher who paved the way for students to pursue a career in painting, and he had a reputation for teaching a style of painting that was different from the methods used at the École des Beaux-Arts was taught. Accordingly, his students consisted mostly of foreigners who placed less value on access to the École des Beaux-Arts, but were drawn to Carolus-Duran's reputation as a portraitist.

Lessons only took place on the morning of every Tuesday and Friday. Each student paid him 20 French Francs, which - according to a letter from FitzWilliam Sargent - was about four USD at the time. The lessons were rather informal, so there are no documents showing which other students Carolus-Duran Sargent taught together. Stanley Olson assumes that the aim of Sargent's teaching was admission to the École des Beaux-Arts, since an education at this prestigious art school gave every graduate status and the prospect of an income that can be achieved through painting.

From Carolus-Duran's point of view, drawings were irrelevant. He was convinced that a picture of nature consisted of adjacent, differently colored surfaces. His approach therefore consisted in first quickly marking the main areas of color on an unprepared canvas with charcoal. The basic drawing was done with broad brushstrokes, with which the general composition of the painting was recorded. Then the individual colored areas were primed with muted tones and, based on this, the next color tones were added one after the other, so that the painting gradually emerged, almost as if in a mosaic-like composition. John Singer Sargent, whose early portraits already show an extraordinarily confident brushwork, suited this style of painting. Years later, John Singer Sargent himself pointed out how much Carolus-Duran had taught him:

“First you had to classify the color values. If you start with the middle shade and work your way from there to the darkest - so that you only use the lightest and darkest shades at the very end - you avoid false accents. It was Carolas who taught me that .... "

Carolus-Duran was also a great admirer of Diego Velázquez . He constantly urged his students to deal intensively with the Spanish painter of the 17th century. John Singer Sargent took up this hint willingly. Sargent's early masterpiece The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit , painted in 1882, is clearly inspired by Velázquez's large painting Las Meninas .

Career as a painter

see also selection of works by John Singer Sargent

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw , 1893, Scottish National Gallery

His life was shaped by extensive travels, from 1874 to 1880 the then Paris-based Sargent toured Europe and indulged his passion for the sea. His landscapes include scenes from Tyrol , Italy , Tangier , Algiers , Palestine , Egypt , France , Spain , Portugal , England , Scotland and Norway . He added close-up figure studies to his landscapes, which particularly characterizes them.

In Paris he took part in the Salon de Paris in 1884 , where his pictures Madame X and The Daughters Boit (with a painting technique clearly under the influence of Velázquez) were created, which at the time triggered scandals. In the painting Madame X he had shown more bare shoulders than the Parisian salons of the Belle Epoque considered beneficial. Sargent also participated in the resistance against the conservative understanding of art of the Royal Academy of Arts and founded the New English Art Club in 1885 together with Thomas Cooper Gotch , Stanhope Forbes , Frank Bramley and other artists . In 1886 he moved to London and took over the studio of James McNeill Whistler , where he painted La Carmencita in 1890 and Henry Marquand in 1897 . In 1895 he received a small gold medal at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition and a large one in 1903. In 1899 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences , two years earlier the National Academy of Design had elected him a full member ( NA ). In 1905 he was accepted as a foreign member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts and elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters .

At the turn of the century he took part in the early exhibitions of the Pastel Society . His technical brilliance made him the most sought-after society portraitist in Europe. The London art dealer Asher Wertheimer ordered a total of twelve portraits of his family from Sargent. He created life-size portraits of the American and English aristocracy in an Impressionist style influenced by Whistler and Spanish clay painting.

His last major works were two large-format paintings on the First World War . Gassed made Sargent in 1919 for the Ministry of Information (Ministry of Information) at. It shows soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force after a poison gas use by German troops . The 1922 General Officers of World War I group portrait was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery .

John Singer Sargent is buried in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, Surrey .




  • John Esten: John Singer Sargent. The Male Nudes . Universe Publ., New York 1999, ISBN 0-7893-0261-6 .
  • Trevor Fairbrother: John Singer Sargent. The sensualist . Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn. 2000, ISBN 0-300-08744-6 (catalog of the exhibition of the same name December 14, 2000 to March 18, 2001, Seattle).
  • Trevor J. Fairbrother: John Singer Sargent and America . Garland, New York 1986, ISBN 0-8240-6886-6 (also dissertation, Boston University, Mass. 1981).
  • Elaine Kilmurray et al. a. (Ed.): John Singer Sargent . TG Publ., London 1998, ISBN 1-85437-245-9 (catalog for the exhibition of the same name October 15, 1998 to January 17, 1999, Tate Gallery , London).
  • Stanley Olson: John Singer Sargent - His Portrait . MacMillan, London 1986, ISBN 0-333-29167-0 .
  • Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray: John Singer Sargent. Complete Paintings . Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn. 1998 ff.
  1. The early portraits . 1998, ISBN 0-300-07245-7 .
  2. Portraits of zthe 1890s . 2002, ISBN 0-300-09067-6 .
  3. The later portraits . 2003, ISBN 0-300-09806-5 .
  4. Figures and landscapes. 1874-1882 . 2006, ISBN 0-300-11716-7 .
  5. Figures and landscapes. 1883-1899 . 2010, ISBN 978-0-300-16111-3 .
  6. Venetian figures and landscapes. 1899-1913 . 2003, ISBN 978-0-300-14140-5 .
  • Carter Ratcliff: John Singer Sargent . Abbeville Press, New York 1982, ISBN 0-7892-0748-6 .

Web links

Commons : John Singer Sargent  - Collection of Images, Videos and Audio Files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ New Orleans Museum of Art Exhibition Commentary of the New Orleans Museum of Art , accessed August 1, 2014.
  2. ^ Stanley Olson: John Singer Sargent - His Portrait . MacMillan, London 1986, ISBN 0-333-29167-0 . P. 1.
  3. ^ Stanley Olson: John Singer Sargent - His Portrait . MacMillan, London 1986, ISBN 0-333-29167-0 . P. 2.
  4. ^ Stanley Olson: John Singer Sargent - His Portrait . MacMillan, London 1986, ISBN 0-333-29167-0 . P. 3.
  5. a b c d Alexander Menden: The Society Painter , in Süddeutsche Zeitung from August 20, 2010.
  6. quoted from Stanley Olson: John Singer Sargent - His Portrait . MacMillan, London 1986, ISBN 0-333-29167-0 . P. 8. The original quote is: Johnny, particularly, is much more fond of climbing & kite-flying than he is of spelling - and, in truth, I like him all the better for it.
  7. ^ Stanley Olson: John Singer Sargent - His Portrait . MacMillan, London 1986, ISBN 0-333-29167-0 . P. 10.
  8. ^ Stanley Olson: John Singer Sargent - His Portrait . MacMillan, London 1986, ISBN 0-333-29167-0 . P. 10.
  9. ^ Stanley Olson: John Singer Sargent - His Portrait . MacMillan, London 1986, ISBN 0-333-29167-0 , p. 28.
  10. ^ Stanley Olson: John Singer Sargent - His Portrait . MacMillan, London 1986, ISBN 0-333-29167-0 , p. 31.
  11. ^ Stanley Olson: John Singer Sargent - His Portrait . MacMillan, London 1986, ISBN 0-333-29167-0 . P. 40.
  12. ^ Stanley Olson: John Singer Sargent - His Portrait . MacMillan, London 1986, ISBN 0-333-29167-0 . P. 31.
  13. ^ Stanley Olson: John Singer Sargent - His Portrait . MacMillan, London 1986, ISBN 0-333-29167-0 . Pp. 31-32.
  14. ^ Stanley Olson: John Singer Sargent - His Portrait . MacMillan, London 1986, ISBN 0-333-29167-0 . P. 38.
  15. ^ Stanley Olson: John Singer Sargent - His Portrait . MacMillan, London 1986, ISBN 0-333-29167-0 . P. 38.
  16. quoted from Stanley Olson: John Singer Sargent - His Portrait . MacMillan, London 1986, ISBN 0-333-29167-0 . P. 39. In the original the quote is: You must classify the values. If you begin with the middle-tone and work up from it towards the darks - so that you deal last wirth your highest lights and darkest darks - you avoid false accents. That's what Carolus taught me ....
  17. ^ Hans Pietsch: Summer, Sun, Beach; Sea views by the great US painter Sargent in: art Das Kunstmagazin from August 16, 2010.
  18. ^ Past Academicians "S" / Sargent, John Singer NA 1897 ( Memento of March 20, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) (accessed June 22, 2015)
  19. ^ Members: John Singer Sargent. American Academy of Arts and Letters, accessed April 24, 2019 .
  21. Alexandra Wach: Stockholm shows Singer Sargent: Weltvergessen dozing . In: FAZ.NET . ISSN  0174-4909 ( [accessed November 24, 2018]).