John Singer Sargent Exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago

John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent (January 12, 1856 – April 14, 1925) was an American artist. He was the most successful portrait painter of his era. Sargent was a gifted landscape painter and water-colorist. Sargent was born in Florence, Italy to American parents. During his career, he created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings.

Sargent - Self Portrait

In 1907,  Sargent moved away from portrait painting and focused on landscapes in his later years; he also sculpted later in life. He traveled extensively, from Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, Montana and Florida; each destination inspired his work. His watercolors, were often of landscapes documenting his travels (Santa Maria della Salute, 1904, Brooklyn Museum of Art).

In watercolors and oils he portrayed his friends and family dressed in Orientalist costume, relaxing in brightly lit landscapes that allowed for a more vivid palette and experimental handling than did his commissions (The Chess Game, 1906).

As a concession to the insatiable demand of wealthy patrons for portraits,  he continued to create charcoal portrait sketches which he called “Mugs”. Forty-six of these, spanning the years 1890-1916, were exhibited at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 1916. The sketch below, depicts Mrs. Marshall Field III.

Sargent is usually not thought of as an Impressionist painter, but he sometimes used impressionistic techniques. His Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood is rendered in his own version of the impressionist style.

Sargent - Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood

Although Sargent was an American expatriate, he returned to the United States many times, often to answer the demand for commissioned portraits. Many of his most important works are in museums in the U.S.; in 1909 he exhibited eighty-six watercolors in New York City, eighty-three of which were bought by the Brooklyn Museum.

His mural decorations grace the Boston Public Library. For this commission, a series of oils on the theme of The Triumph of Religion that were attached to the walls of the library by means of marouflage. Sargent made numerous visits to the United States in the last decade of his life, including a stay of two full years from 1915-1917. In the USA, in addition to portraits he worked on a series of decorative paintings for public buildings such as the Boston Public Library (1890) and the Museum of Fine Arts (1916).

Early life

John Singer Sargent, the son of an American doctor, was born in Florence in 1856. He studied painting in Italy and France and in 1884 caused a sensation at the Paris Salon with his painting of Madame Gautreau. Exhibited as Madame X, people complained that the painting was provocatively erotic. Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X, done in 1884, is now considered one of his best works, and was the artist’s personal favorite. Eventually Sargent sold the portrait to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the time it was unveiled in Paris at the 1884 Salon, it aroused such a negative reaction that it prompted Sargent to move to London. Prior to the Mme. X. scandal of 1884, he had painted exotic beauties such as Rosina Ferrara of Capri, and the Spanish expatriate model, Carmela Bertagna, but the earlier pictures had not been intended for broad public reception.

Sargent - Madame X (or Madame Pierre Gautreau)

The scandal persuaded Sargent to move to England. In England, he himself as the country’s leading portrait painter. This included portraits of Joseph Chamberlain (1896), Frank Swettenham (1904) and Henry James (1913).

Sargent - Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs. Wertheimer

Sargent studied in Italy and Germany, and then in Paris under Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran.  Carolus-Duran’s influence would be pivotal, from 1874-1878. “Carolus-Duran’s atelier was progressive, dispensing with the traditional academic approach which required careful drawing and under-painting”. This approach relied on the proper placement of different tones of paint.

In 1879, Sargent painted a portrait of Carolus-Duran shown below. Its showing at the Paris Salon was both a tribute to his teacher and an advertisement for portrait commissions.

Sargent - Carolus-Duran

Henry James wrote: “that the artist offered ‘the slightly “uncanny” spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn”.


Sargent - Nude Egyptian Girl

In the early 1880s Sargent regularly exhibited portraits at the Salon, and these were mostly full-length portrayals of women: Madame Edouard Pailleron in 1880 (shown below).  He also painted Madame Ramón Subercaseaux in 1881, and Lady with the Rose in 1882.

Sargent - Madame Edouard Pailleron (study)

 Velázquez was one of Sargent’s great influences. Sargent’s best portraits reveal the individuality and personality of the sitters.Sargent’s “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit”, 1882, echoes Velázquez’ Las Meninas.

Sargent - The Daughters Of Edward Darley Boit

His first major success at the Royal Academy came in 1887, with the enthusiastic response to Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, a large piece, painted on site, of two young girls lighting lanterns in an English garden. The painting was immediately purchased by the Tate Gallery.

Sargent - Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

In 1894 Sargent was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, and was made a full member three years later. In the 1890s he averaged fourteen portrait commissions per year, none more beautiful than the genteel Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892, shown below.

Sargent - Lady Agnew

As a portrait painter in the grand manner, Sargent’s success was unmatched. “His subjects were at once ennobled and often possessed of nervous energy” like Mrs. Hugh Hammersley, 1892 (shown below).

Sargent - Mrs  Hugh Hammersley


Sargent was referred to as ‘the Van Dyck of our times’.

Before his arrival in England, Sargent began sending paintings for exhibition at the Royal Academy. These included the portraits of Dr. Pozzi at Home, 1881, a flamboyant essay in red, and the more traditional Mrs. Henry White, 1883. The ensuing portrait commissions encouraged Sargent to finalize his move to London in 1886.

Artist on the Rise, Abroad and at Home

Sargent (1856–1925) became the most sought-after portraitist of his generation on both sides of the Atlantic. Born in Italy to American parents, he traveled the world in search of subjects and worked professionally for more than 50 years creating vibrant, lively paintings.

To order prints visit:

Sargent’s Chicago Debut

This painting, Street in Venice, was exhibited in Chicago in 1888, marking the first time a work by Sargent was shown in the city (shown below).

A painting of a young woman walking down a Venice street. She gazes down while two people stand to the side in conversation with each other with their faces in shadow. One of them looks at the young woman.

“His assertive portrait of Carmen Dauset commanded the attention of critics and museum goers when it was displayed at the Art Institute in 1890 and helped put Chicago on the map as a center for contemporary art and culture.” Chicago Art Institute Exhibit

Over the next four decades, dozens of paintings by Sargent traveled to the city for exhibition, including at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

Sargent lived and worked among a large circle of artists and friends, including Claude Monet and Giovanni Boldini. These artists learned from one another, swapping roles as sitters and models, sharing art, and nurturing important contacts and deep friendships.

A painting of a large, open room with many architectural details. Four large, white pillars lead the viewer through an exterior corridor with high, domed ceilings to a doorway that seems to lead to the interior of the home. Large, lush plants can be seen in the sun-filled patio just out of view.

An Artist of Many Talents

Sargent was best known for his remarkable portraits, but he also created landscapes, watercolors, and murals. Group with Parasols (A Siesta) (1905) is shown below.

Group with Parasols (or A Siesta)

In December 2004, Group with Parasols (A Siesta) (1905) sold for $US 23.5 million, nearly double the Sotheby’s estimate of $12 million. The previous highest price for a Sargent painting was $US 11 million.

Sargent painted a series of three portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson. The second, Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife (1885), was one of his best known. Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife sold in 2004 for $8.8 million to Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn to be installed at his newest casino, Wynn Las Vegas. He also completed portraits of two U.S. presidents: Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.


Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson (shown above)

Here’s a link to a list of his works:

Leave a comment

Filed under Italy Travel Guides

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.