John Singer Sargent
Biography of American Impressionist Society Portrait Artist.

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The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit
(1882) Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
One of the greatest portrait paintings
of the 19th century.

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)


Youth and Training
Early Paintings
Portrait of Madame X
Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner
Painting Style
Other American Realist Painters

NOTE: For analysis of works by Impressionist painters like John Singer Sargent, please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Close-up of
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.

Madame X (1884)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

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Arguably the greatest figure in American Impressionism, and unquestionably among the best portrait artists of the late-19th and early-20th century, the American painter John Singer Sargent was the last exponent of portrait art in the grand manner. Famous in particular for his Impressionist portraits - notably his masterpiece The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) - Sargent inspired generations of portraitists with his painterly skills, not least his classical au premier coup technique - one exact stroke of the brush, with no reworking. Thanks to his sense of glamour and stylishness, combined with his exquisite brushwork, he became one of the most successful European-based artists whose realistic portraits featured the aristocratic and the rich, whom he showed at their glittering best in flattering poses. In many ways, Sargent captured the spirit of the golden age that perished with the First World War. (See also: American Art: 1750-present).

Youth and Training

Sargent was the second child of an expatriate doctor from Philadelphia, Fitzwilliam Argent, whose wife, Mary Newbold Singer, was convinced that life in America was intolerably provincial. The family, while not poor, was obliged to take advantage of bargain rates at the various European spas, which perhaps accounts for Sargent's aspirations to succeed in the best social circles. He mastered the art of drawing from his earliest youth, keeping sketchbooks which recorded the family travels. In Rome in 1868 his first instructor was a German-American landscape painter named Carl Welsch. By 1870, when he enrolled in the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, the venerable American sculptor Hiram Powers (1805-73) had predicted a glowing future for the young artist.

In 1874 Sargent entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris but soon transferred to the private studio of Carolus Duran (1838-1917), a fashionable Parisian portraitist, whose aplomb and dashingly fluid manner made an indelible impression on his student. Although he developed a close friendship with Monet (1840-1926), respected James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), and was even asked to join the Impressionist group, Sargent deliberately opted for establishment art, no doubt because it provided the more assured avenue to worldly success.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-6)
Tate Collection, London.

19th Century Portraits;
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Early Paintings

In this decision he could not have been disappointed. By the time he was 22, he had gained an honourable mention in the Paris Salon of 1878, guaranteeing exemption from further submissions before the jury. Then his strategy became clear - it was safely to establish his reputation and then, from a plateau of security, to practice those innovations which, he must have protested to himself, he always realized determined the true value of modern art. Thus, in the late 1870s and early 1880s his landscape painting demonstrated how well he understood Impressionism, yet it was an Impressionism in part only, and - as far as portraits were concerned - always sacrificed to the exigencies of a society portrait.

In turn Sargent absorbed with consummate ease each of the fashionable styles or movements that French painting offered during the 1880s and 1890s. As well as Impressionism, these also included Neo-Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. His understanding of the importance of Spanish subjects, first introduced by Edouard Manet (1832-63) in the early 1860s, was fulfilled in his El Jaleo (1882, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston), which was again a great critical success. The preparation of this work led Sargent to make a thorough study of Velazquez which correspondingly enriched his portraiture. From about 1882-3, when he painted The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), his most remarkable work, Sargent's career as a fashionable portraitist began to develop rapidly.

Portrait of Madame X

Unfortunately, Sargent's early portraits attracted harsh criticism. His 1884 composition, Portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1883-4, Metropolitan Museum) - a picture of his fellow-American Virginia Gautreau, a famous society beauty and the wife of a wealthy French banker - caused a scandal, when it was shown at the 1884 Paris Salon. Although unnamed, Gautreau's face was clearly recognizable, and the low-cut dress, the deathly white make-up, the twisted pose of the right arm, and the fact that one of the sitter's dress-straps (subsequently repainted) was suggestively hanging off her shoulder, shocked the public, leading the artist to leave Paris under a cloud. Despite this, Sargent always maintained that the portrait was his finest work. (See also: Greatest Modern Paintings.) For a brief instant it seemd that his notoriety might drive away clients, but his timely move to England and the admiration of Henry James secured a steady stream of sitters. In 1887, when Sargent received an invitation to paint the portrait of Mrs Henry Marquand, and travelled to America to do it, his clientele expanded to its widest and most appreciative extent.

Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner

Typically, Isabella Stewart Gardner (wife of Jack Gardner of Boston) then wished to have her own portrait painted in the pose of the notorious Madame Gautreau. There followed a second visit to the United States in 1890, and Sargent completed more than 40 portrait commissions. Mrs Gardner was the founder of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. She sat for Sargent on at least two occasions, bought 22 of his paintings and introduced him to many valuable patrons. Years later, in 1920, Sargent repaid her kindness by painting a tender portrait of her, following a stroke. It was during this time that Sargent also developed a reputation as one of the most famous painters of children's portraits - see, for instance, his masterpiece Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885) Tate Gallery, London.


He had, meanwhile, met Charles Follen McKim of the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, and was given a major commission for mural painting in the new Boston Public Library. [Note: Boston was the native city of another American Impressionist Childe Hassam (1859-1935), who became famous for his flag paintings. For other important American Impressionist painters, see: Theodore Robinson (1852-96) and William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), as well as John H Twachtman (1853-1902), and J. Alden Weir (1852-1919).] These decorations now consumed his energy, for he saw in them an opportunity to escape from what he knew as the tedious routine of a successful society portraitist. He settled on an ambitious scheme - the origins of Western religion and the rise and triumph of Christianity, a somewhat pretentious subject fully in accord with the tastes of the Boston Brahmins who applauded the results and commissioned yet more work for the library, and ultimately for the new Museum of Fine Arts. Sargent was all the rage. Indeed, such was his reputation as one of the most stylish of modern artists, that in one year, 1897, he was elected to the National Academy in New York, the Royal Academy in London, and made an officer of the Legion d'Honneur in Paris.

With high society clamouring to be painted, basking in his fame as the most brilliant of American turn-of-the-century painters, Sargent characteristically determined to abandon the compromising activity of portraits and devote himself to what he truly believed in, that is, apart from the Boston decorations, he would paint only for himself. But it was too late. No matter how prodigious his talent and technical virtuosity, no matter how much he had absorbed from the innovations of Post-Impressionist painters and the Neoclassical painting style of the muralist Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98), his fresco paintings demonstrate a fundamental intellectual shallowness. Compare Sargant's mural painting with that of another Impressionist and portrait painter, the Spaniard Joaquin Sorolla Y Bastida (1863-1923), who was a friend of the American.

In only one area, beginning around 1900 and lasting until the end of his life, did Sargent consistently transcend the years of compromise in order to achieve worldly success. This was in casual watercolour painting - especially outdoor watercolour sketches. These, small works preserved what the Princeton art historian Frank J. Mather called the "zest of a beginner", and eloquently demonstrate what a remarkable artist Sargent was.

During the First World War he was appointed an official British War Artist, in which role he painted his famous composition Gassed (1919), based on studies made on the battlefield. (See also English Figurative Painting.) His career was crowned by the 1922 mural decorations he executed for the Widener Memorial Library at Harvard. He died in April 1925 in London, and achieved the distinction of a memorial service in Westminster Abbey. The following year, memorial exhibitions were staged by the Royal Academy in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Success as a Painter

As an artist, Sargent possessed a brilliant oil painting technique, combining assured fluid brushwork, bold compositions, as well as precise matching of tones. His friendship with Claude Monet (1840-1926) and other Impressionist painters helped him to master the replication of light, which remained a constant fascination. His portrait of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882) is one of the finest ever figurative Impressionist paintings. His range was impressive and included quarter, half and full length formal portraits, as well as more relaxed works set in gardens and landscapes. (Note: to compare the approach to colour and light taken by French Impressionists, please see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting 1870-1910.)

As well as portraiture, he also explored - with less success - genre-painting and murals, although he could not elude the demands of his sitters. The equal (if not superior) to Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) and Thomas Gainsborough (1722-88), John Singer Sargent is as much a painter's painter, as a popular artist of pre-war society, and his work bridges the divide between the Old Masters and Impressionism. His paintings can be seen in the best art museums throughout the world.

Although he never set foot in the United States until he was 21 (and then only to maintain his American citizanship) and, aside from a couple of painting trips, spent his entire life on the Continent and in England, Sargent nevertheless represented the very ideal of the American artist of the early 20th century. This is because he was so successful, because his work sold so well, and finally because his fame had been secured through official channels in Europe.

Other American Realist Portrait Artists

For other important American realist portrait painters, see: Benjamin West (1738-1820) the "Father of American Painting"; John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), noted for his portraits and history pictures; Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), who painted some 130 portraits of George Washington; and Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) for his outstanding subject-paintings and portraiture.

• For more biographies of portrait artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more about Impressionist portraiture, see: Homepage.

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