Saturday, May 28, 2016


As I blogged yesterday, Sargent is the painter of one of my favorite works, Fumée D’Ambris Gris. 

Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose - one of Sargent's most popular paintings

How elegant! 160 years ago this year, the painter John Singer Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, to nomadic American expats. Sounds romantic, but the truth is a bit sadder. Sargent’s parents became wanderers, trying to recover after the death of their firstborn, a daughter.  Once their son and then another daughter were born, his father resigned his position as an eye surgeon in America, and the family settled down to a life of travel throughout Europe.

An active and interested boy, Sargent had no formal education other than what his parents gave him in the way of basic school lessons and the wide benefits of European culture. Sargent was fluent in several languages, was widely read, widely traveled of course, and, having inherited the artistic skills of his parents, was himself an accomplished artist, as well as a fine musician. 

the charming Ruth Sears Bacon

Portraiture was the preferred artistic expression of the days of Sargent’s youth, the Victorian Era. He began formal art studies with a well-known portrait artist, and then won a place at Paris’ prestigious École des Beaux-Arts. Though not yet fully into the era of the Impressionists, artists of the time were working with paint and their techniques in new ways. Portrait artists, most of all, wanted to break out of the strict confines of the traditional poses for their subjects. Sargent excelled at landscapes, but portraits brought in the money and the publicity – he found ways to combine the two, making each more interesting. He brought interior and outdoor landscapes to his portraits, and introduced people into his landscapes. By the age of 51, Sargent, who was very popular and could charge very high prices for his portraits, was able to bid good-bye to portrait painting and concentrate almost exclusively on his landscapes.

From the outset of his career, and continuing on to this day, the discussion and criticism of Sargent’s paintings has stirred the art world. Is this or that painting an allegory, is there anything sexual or amoral about them, how did his techniques change, how was he influenced by the old master painters, how was he influenced by the modern Impressionists and Cubists with whom he associated? 

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit- a family portrait like no oher

To the majority of those who see and enjoy his paintings today the answer is “who cares?” His vast output included thousands of oils, watercolors and drawings. His works are classed as “American Renaissance,” and there is just something about his paintings that people like. They’d be comfortable to have a landscape or portrait of his hanging in their own homes. Art print dealers do a brisk business in copies of his works.  Look at pieces like Carnation, Lili, Lily, Rose, or Fumée D’Ambris Gris – not formal portraits. Look at Ruth Sears Bacon or at The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit -  portraits that are more than portraits. Look at The Oyster Gatherers at Cancale, and you’ll see why Sargent’s works are so popular today.

The Oyster Gatherers at Canca

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