top of page

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
Historic American Painting

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, to well-to-do fashionable American parents who followed the social seasons in Europe. He began formal studies in Rome, and then in Florence at the Accademia di Belle Arti in 1871-1872, where he began to develop his innate precocious ability to draw. After traveling to Venice and Dresden, he worked in the Paris atelier of Émile Carolus-Duran, at the École des Beaux-Arts, and at the studio of Léon Bonnat, where he developed his technical facility, and his own style of spontaneous brushwork. It was at this time that the French Impressionists were making themselves known in Paris, and Sargent was highly influenced by their painterly, loose brush strokes and philosophy of pleinairism. 

Sargent greatly admired the work of Whistler and Manet, and like them, was profoundly influenced by the work of the Spanish Baroque painter, Diego Velasquez. After he made a trip to Spain, he painted his first major oil, the well-known large group portrait, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Sargent thus began his career of creating sophisticated aesthetic portraits of wealthy patrons and their children. He exhibited his works in the Paris Salon, the Royal Academy in London, and regularly at the National Academy of Design in New York. Sargent's career as a portraitist of the wealthy class was prolific and successful. In recent years, historians have begun to reevaluate his contribution and significance as an American painter in the context of today's aesthetic criteria. 

Sargent also produced an impressive oeuvre of masterful watercolors. Later in his life, he traveled extensively, and frequently made watercolor sketches and paintings of his surroundings. His friendship with Monet was no doubt significant Sargent's decision to paint out of doors, for his own pleasure, away from the pressures of his studio and patrons, on his own time. By 1900, Sargent began working regularly in watercolor. 

The watercolors are expressions of pure Sargent, as it were. They are emotionally compelling statements, suggestive, typically spontaneous, open, and fluid. One can see in the watercolors Sargent's sure sense of composition and vigorous command of his medium. The watercolors are evidence of Sargent's keen sensitivity to the nuances of color and light, and his ability to efficiently and successfully communicate the immediacy of form defined by constantly shifting light, reflection and shadow.

Selected Permanent Collections:

Sargent's work is represented in all major museums across the United States; significant groups of his master drawings and watercolors are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. 

Art Institute of Chicago
Cincinnati Art Museum
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D. C.
Imperial War Museum, London
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Tate Gallery, London

See also: Warren Adelson, John Singer Sargent: His Own Work, New York, 1980; Warren Adelson, et al., Sargent Abroad: Figures and Landscapes, New York, Abbeville Press, 1997; Donelson F. Hoopes, Sargent Watercolors, New York, 1970; Carl Little, The Watercolors of John Singer Sargent, University of California Press, 1999; Carter Ratcliff, Sargent Watercolors, New York, 1982; and Natalie Spassky, John Singer Sargent: A Selection of Drawings and Watercolors from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1971.

bottom of page