John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925) was an American expatriate artist, considered the “leading portrait painter of his generation” for his evocations of Edwardian-era luxury. He created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings. His oeuvre documents worldwide travel, from Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, the Middle East, Montana, Maine, and Florida.
He was born in Florence to American parents, and trained in Paris before moving to London, living most of his life in Europe. He enjoyed international acclaim as a portrait painter. An early submission to the Paris Salon in the 1880s, his Portrait of Madame X, was intended to consolidate his position as a society painter in Paris, but instead resulted in scandal. During the next year following the scandal, Sargent departed for England where he continued a successful career as a portrait artist.
In a time when the art world focused, in turn, on Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism, Sargent practiced his own form of Realism, which made brilliant references to Velázquez, Van Dyck, and Gainsborough. His seemingly effortless facility for paraphrasing the masters in a contemporary fashion led to a stream of commissioned portraits of remarkable virtuosity (Arsène Vigeant, 1885, Musées de Metz; Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Newton Phelps-Stokes, 1897, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and earned Sargent the moniker, “the Van Dyck of our times.”
Still, during his life his work engendered negative responses from some of his colleagues: Camille Pissarro wrote “he is not an enthusiast but rather an adroit performer,” and Walter Sickert published a satirical turn under the heading “Sargentolatry.” By the time of his death he was dismissed as an anachronism, a relic of the Gilded Age and out of step with the artistic sentiments of post-World War I Europe. Elizabeth Prettejohn suggests that the decline of Sargent’s reputation was due partly to the rise of anti-Semitism, and the resultant intolerance of ‘celebrations of Jewish prosperity.’ It has been suggested that the exotic qualities inherent in his work appealed to the sympathies of the Jewish clients whom he painted from the 1890s on.
In 1922 Sargent co-founded New York City’s Grand Central Art Galleries together with Edmund Greacen, Walter Leighton Clark, and others. Sargent actively participated in the Grand Central Art Galleries and their academy, the Grand Central School of Art, until his death in 1925. The Galleries held a major retrospective exhibit of Sargent’s work in 1924. He then returned to England, where he died suddenly at his Chelsea home on April 14, 1925, of heart disease. Sargent is interred in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, Surrey.
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