John Singer Sargent Biography

John Singer Sargent  spent nearly every waking moment generating art. He painted portraits, murals and landscapes. He worked in oil paint, watercolors and charcoal. He sculpted. He worked within the Impressionist style, to some degree, but often defied categorization. He is one of the most famous of the portrait artists, said to have the ability to capture the essential nature of a person in just a few brush strokes. John Singer Sargent paintings have always been popular, and likely always will be, as they demonstrate the work of a talented, skilled and dedicated artist.


John Singer Sargent was born in Florence in 1856, the son of an American doctor. His mother was an amateur painter, and encouraged her children to draw and paint at early ages. The family traveled frequently, rarely stopping in one location for long. Singer Sargent had a sporadic education as a result, but drawing was a constant. He filled multiple notebooks with images from the family's trips.

In 1883, Sargent enrolled in the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence, where he studied drawing. He copied famous paintings and sculptures, and learned to enhance his self-taught technique. Sargent left the school after only one year, and began his professional career as a painter.


Singer Sargent's reputation as a portrait artist grew in Paris in the 1880s, and he began to receive commissions for work. His work was shown in the Salon exhibitions and wealthy patrons wished to have their own versions to hang in their homes. He painted famous ladies such as Rosina Ferrara of Capri and Carmela Bertagna, and his fame, and his prices, grew. The Singer Sargent Portrait of Madame X from 1884 would cause a public scandal and put an end to this activity for a time. In this large painting, a very pale, very elongated woman is shown in a tight gown. Her shoulders and arms are completely bare, her expression vague but slightly lascivious. Viewers felt there was something unseemly about showing such a sexual side of a woman, and demanded the portrait's removal. Sargent was disgusted, as this was one of his best works, and he felt the art world in France was no longer a good home.

Sargent left for England in 1886. Sargent had a previous history with the art world in England. John Singer Sargent paintings had been shown in the Royal Academy exhibitions, and Sargent was in demand as a portrait painter as a result. In 1887, his large painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, depicting young girls lighting lanterns in an English garden, was embraced by the critics and purchased for the Tate Gallery. In the 1890s, he received, on average, 14 portrait-painting commissions per year and traveled between England and the United States to fill the orders. He painted Robert Louis Stevenson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Nelson Rockefeller, and multiple wealthy ladies. As a portrait artist, John Singer Sargent was unmatched, bringing a sense of drama and personality to his paintings. In 1907, Sargent would tire of this work and would virtually give up all portrait commissions.


In 1890, John Singer Sargent was asked to decorate the Special Collections Hall of the Boston Public Library. This was an extremely large project, and would take Sargent nearly 25 years to complete. The theme, "The Triumph of Religion," would require Sargent to travel to North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean to pick up source materials and get inspiration.

In 1916, Sargent was asked to paint a series of murals for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. These John Singer Sargent paintings would be placed on the ceiling in the museum's rotunda, but as the work progressed, the curators asked him to extend his work through the walls of the stairwell.

Watercolors and War

In the early 1900s, Sargent began to experiment with watercolors. This medium had long been considered too fluid and preemptive for formal use, but Sargent found them ideal for use while he traveled. The were light, easy to mix and easy to apply, allowing him to capture the scenery he saw while on hikes and camping trips throughout Europe. These are remarkable Sargent paintings, full of light and spontaneity, a quality not often found in the formal John Singer Sargent portrait paintings.

In 1918, Sargent's trips were cut short due to the war in Europe. He was sent to France by the British War Office and required to document the war. He produced sketches of soldiers, ruined buildings and destruction. The devastation was all the more poignant for John Singer Sargent as his niece, Rose-Marie, had been killed in a church bombing in Paris. Sargent used the eye of a documentary photographer during this period. The John Singer Sargent painting Gassed from 1918 shows a row of soldiers marching, eyes covered. The road is lined with other fallen soldiers, some reaching for help. The light here is golden, and the sentiment is tender, but the artist is unflinching in his portrayal of this terrible moment of war.

Personal Life and Death

John Singer Sargent was an extremely private person, and little is known of his private life or romantic relationships. He did not marry, nor did he have children, but he had a large circle of friends and patrons that he kept in contact with. He was also quite close to his extended family and kept close ties with his sisters and their children. When the work for the Boston Museum was completed in 1925, Sargent joked that his work was done and he could die at home in peace. He did just that, dying in his sleep in London.

After his death, his work faced a critical decline. Modern viewers felt paintings by John Singer Sargent were overblown and sentimental, and values began to decline. In the 1960s, Sargent paintings were reassessed and values began to climb once more. John Singer Sargent paintings are now some of the most expensive paintings in the world. The Portrait of Robert Lewis Stevenson and His Wife sold in 2004 for $8.8 million. That same year, A Siesta was sold for $23.5 million.