John Singer Sargent – A Life Through Pictures


Sargent – Daughters of Edward D Boit 1882

Sargent’s life is full of movement – born in Italy, he studied in Paris, painted portraits in London, produced oils and watercolours in Venice, was a First World War artist, and spent the later years of his life painting murals in Boston.

Sargent – Bridge of Sighs

My lecture looks in depth at his amazing portraits analysing just how he captured the character of his sitters and looking back to Van Dyck and Gainsborough. I look in detail at his Venetian oils and sparkling watercolours and outline the Anglo-American society in the Palazzo Barbaro that he frequented while in Venice. I look at his paintings done in the Alps with his friends while travelling down to Venice, and show his wartime watercolours.

This is a sparkling lecture full of colour which shows that Sargent is a master in both oils and watercolours, as well as being a charming, musical and cosmopolitan man.

Study Day

Lecture 1: 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 CarolusDuran who encouraged him to paint loosely and freely and look closely at the tonal values of Velázquez. 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.

Sargent – Dorothy Vickers 1884

Lecture 2: Success in London, 1880s and 1890s 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 1890s, 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 3: 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.