The Quintessential Portrait Painter

The Quintessential Portrait Painter

John Singer Sargent (January 12, 1856 – April 14, 1925) was born in Florence, Italy to American parents. He had little formal schooling; instead, he learned geography, arithmetic, and reading from his father. He became an accomplished pianist. His mother, an amateur artist, encouraged him to draw, and the family’s travels exposed him to many subjects for his artwork, and also facilitated fluency in Italian, French, and German.

He began his formal art training during the winter of 1873–74 at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. In May, 1874, Sargent entered the teaching atelier of Carolus-Duran, a leading portraitist in Paris, who encouraged his students to paint immediately (rather than make preliminary drawings. Study of the works of Rembrandt, van Dyck and Velázquez also influenced Sargent. But at a time when the art world experimented with Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism, Sargent practiced his own form of Realism.


Madame X (Madame Pierre Gantreau)

He burst into the art scene in 1884 with his painting of Madame Pierre Gautreau. Exhibited as Madame X, people complained that the painting was provocatively erotic, producing scandal for Sargent rather than fame. He decided to flee Paris for London in 1886, living in England for most of the rest of his life, and becoming the “leading portrait painter of his generation” for his depictions of Edwardian era luxury.

Sargent had no assistants; he handled all tasks himself, such as preparing his canvases, varnishing the painting, arranging for photography, shipping, and documentation. He commanded about $5,000 per portrait, or about $130,000 in today’s currency.

After the turn of the century, Sargent grew tired of portrait painting (although he consented to painting portraits of United States Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson). He acquired commissions for other kinds of work, such as murals for the Boston Public Library, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University. He also established a solid reputation as a watercolorist.


Portrait of Mrs. Cecil Wade


Portrait of Lady Agnew


Portrait of John D. Rockefeller


Portrait of Nancy Viscountess Astor


Portrait of Lady Helen Vincent


The Garden Wall




The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy


Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose



Dans Les Oliviers


Street in Venice


Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood


Muddy Alligators


An Out-of-Doors Study


The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

Click here to hear artist Kehinde Wiley’s thoughts on John Singer Sargent.

Information for this article was gathered from:


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