Affable, urbane and socially adroit, artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was devoted to the creation of beauty and had an active outstanding career at London, Florence and Paris although not in Philadelphia, New England in America the place his parents called home.
Sargent had a rare eye for composition and colour that when combined with his extraordinary ability to capture the beauty he saw brought about a whole new informality in art, which became a symbolic of his contemporary life.
His skill as a technician and visionary artist are certainly revealed in all his portraits, particularly those of his close friends and acquaintances, including artists; writers, actors, dancers and musicians, which is now on show until October 4 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (The Met).
Portraying painter Jane de Glehn with her husband watching her working intently recording a scene at the fountain, Villa Torlonia in Frascati in Italy in 1907, he provided a gentle image of those halcyon days before World War I when lounging about and looking idle was taken to an art form of its own by those at the cutting edge of society.
Celebrities all, they were on the same social whirlwind together, as he actively pursued his own ideals of colouring, light and shade.
There are some ninety-two works on display in the exhibition Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends now on show at The Met, including paintings and drawings that are always intimate, sometimes witty character studies, which explore and reflect his relationships, aspirations and allegiances.
It’s a stunning show in which you can encounter some of the great luminaries of his time, including the artists Claude Monet and Auguste Rodin a famous sculptor and writers Robert Louis Stevenson of Robinson Caruso fame and Henry James, one of the key figures of 20th century realism, and so many more. The list of works is impressive.
John Singer-Sargent went on to become not only one of the most sought after and most admired portraiture artists of his age but also retaining that reputation until today; Australian born actress Nicole Kidman recently revealing to Vogue he is the artist she would certainly choose to paint her portrait.
The son of people of means, Sargent’s upbringing and life could have never been considered conventional by any means. In completing his portrait of the fidgety boy (Homer Staint-Gaudens and his Mother Augustua) c1890 sitting formally attired next to his mother perhaps he’s echoing shades of how he felt himself, being brought up in an encouraging, refined but nevertheless genteel goldfish bowl atmosphere.
Growing up in Italy where he was born in Florence to his Philadelphia born parents. They were seeking a healthier climate for this their second son, having sadly lost their first.
His parents taught him at home; his father reinforcing his knowledge of the basics of math, geography and reading, his mother an artist teaching him to draw.
They made sure he took part in exercise activities daily, planning elaborate walking routes for him from the legendary travel guide that was all the rage, ‘Baedeker’ – one just didn’t leave home without one.
He thrived within the privileged establishment circles they moved in and, as a student of art for his growing years and then all the years to come.
His father wanted his talent drawn out in Paris, the only place for art students in his age to see and be seen. Charles-Émile-Auguste Durand (1837-1917) known as Carolus-Duran a leading portraitist of the Third Republic in France became his teacher.
Sargent and his fellow students were encouraged to paint without making preliminary drawings, which had been traditional. In that regard Carolus-Duran was considered a ‘radical’ by his peers. He was encouraging them to reach beyond what they knew, to exceed all boundaries and to re-imagine what the future of visual art might be as they experimented with all the new pigments and brushes coming onto the market at that time.
The aim was to ‘preserve the freshness of the sketch in completed works’ and Sargent became Carolus Duran’s protégé and star pupil. In a portrait he painted of his mentor in 1879 he included an affectionate dedication for the master he had surpassed.
Singer-Sargent didn’t visit America until 1876 when he and his mother and sister Emily attended the first official World’s Fair the landmark Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.
Returning to Europe in 1877 to exhibit his first portrait and in the years ahead would become renowned for his impressions of aristocratic elegance.
He travelled to Spain, Holland and Venice exploring and creating as he went, gradually building a reputation for his ‘sun drenched’ canvases as he sorted out where his own strengths lay.
Watercolours and landscapes became a passion, while portraits continued to supply and enhance his livelihood and today they represent all those people in the spotlight of his times.
He formed a friendship with French impressionist painter Claude Monet and from 1885 spent many happy moments in his garden at Giverny recording and painting his own lasting impressions.
In England he encountered resistance from the more conservative aristocracy of that time until his ravishing Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose displayed at the Royal Academy at London in 1877 overcame the critics who began to admire the quality of his works.
During the 1880’s he travelled in America where during his visits he was kept actively engaged and the 1890’s back in England finally originally hesitant British patrons emerged.
He impressed them all by providing portraits that had a dialogue with tradition respecting creating grand-manner pendants to family heirlooms by such luminaries of the past as Anthony van Dyck and Sir Joshua Reynolds.
At the same time he was exercising his own skill and intelligence by knowing he needed to reveal his English subjects in the best possible light.
The turn of the twentieth century for Sargent, just like many others meant the beginning of great changes.
He became involved in Mural painting in Boston for the library and Museum of Fine arts and at the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University.
His watercolours became a concentration and a new source of both financial gain and critical acclamation.
From 1903 he showcased his new genre pictures, receiving wonderful reviews in both London and New York, stimulating a great demand for them.
We would have to observed that ‘Sargent engineered his career so astutely that by 1907 the date when he pledged not to accept any more portrait commissions, he had already established a solid reputation as a water colourist.
By the end of his own very private life he was failing to capture the imagination any more and like all considered to be passed their prime, derided as being ‘traditional’ while actually being one of the few artists and illuminating imaginative men who helped to make the modern world.
He transmitted his perceptions onto canvas, evoking an emotional response, which as Henry James wrote ‘as if painting were pure tact of vision, a simple manner of feeling’ – an ‘adroit performer’.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015