John Singer Sargent – A Life through Pictures

Study day

Lecture One – Paris and Venice 1856-1882

Sargent was born in Florence of ex-pat American parents who spent the summers in Italian cities travelling to Paris or London to escape the summer heat.  As a boy Sargent travelled with his parents, never attending a regular school, but he learnt to speak many languages fluently and saw the great European museums. In 1874 in Paris he entered the atelier of Carolus-Duran who encouraged him to paint loosely and freely and look closely at the tonal values of Velasquez. During the summer vacations he painted in Brittany, Naples, Capri, Spain, North Africa and Venice and began exhibiting his work at the Paris Salon. Between 1880 and 1882 he worked in Venice painting oils of the local people working in shabby palaces on the Grand Canal, returning regularly to Paris to exhibit his work.


Lecture Two – Success in London 1880’ and 1890’s

Sargent had intended to build a reputation and practice as a portrait painter in Paris, but the scandal of ‘Madame X’ decided him to move to England where he settled in 1885. His first years in England were centred around Broadway where he painted ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose’ and numerous highly Impressionist landscapes.  However his aim was to build a successful portrait practice and by 1890 he had become one of the leading practitioners in London. His portraits, which are sometimes today wrongly dismissed as ‘flashy’, are masterpieces of observation both physical and psychological. Sargent was equally at home painting successful businessmen, aristocratic families, artists, actors , musicians and children. By the late 1890’s Sargent was tiring of the demands that portraiture made upon his time and creativity and he longed to return to Italy and Spain to paint landscapes. ‘Ask me to paint your gates, your fences, your barns which I should gladly do, but not the human face.’


Lecture Three – At the Height of his Powers

Sargent was multi-talented : he was an outstanding musician, playing the piano and guitar to a professional  standard; he was a fluent linguist and he became an international figure, known in Paris, London, Venice and USA.  Released from the tyranny of portraits, Sargent returned regularly to Venice where he would stay at the Palazzo Barbaro (owned by his cousins, the Curtis family), which he described as a ‘Fontaine de Jouvence’. He would travel slowly down through the Alps with friends painting as they went, then spent a month painting watercolours of Venice, at first entirely for his own pleasure and later to exhibit.  He also worked in Spain and North Africa painting energetic Impressionist landscapes. In addition to this he had embarked upon an ambitious project to decorate the Boston Public Library. During the First World War Sargent became an official War Artist and although he is best known for his major work ‘Gassed’ and  a series of portraits of the generals, he also produced wonderful watercolours of the Western Front. Sargent refused a knighthood and the Presidency of the Royal Academy in London, continuing to paint to the day he died in his studio in Chelsea in 1925.