John Singer Sargent

″You cannot do sketches enough. Sketch everything and keep everything and keep your curiosity fresh.″ JSS

By Alexandra A Jopp

One of the leading Impressionists, John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925) was born to Fitz William and Mary (née Singer) in Florence in 1854. Sargent "was the last great society portraitist - the Van Dyck of his time, as Auguste Rodin was the first to say," art critic Robert Hughes wrote in TIME Magazine. During his career, he created approximately 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 Near and Far East, Montana, Maine, and Florida. He was commissioned by members of aristocracy, the great literary and artistic figures of his day, and won countless honors and prizes. His work is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the White House, the Tate Gallery and National Gallery in London, the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
John Sargent was given little regular schooling. Instead, he learned Italian, French, and German. He studied liberal arts under his father's tutelage. He also became an accomplished pianist. His talent for drawing was influenced by his mother, an amateur sketcher, and by artist wealthy friends of his parents. At age 14, Sargent began to attend drawing classes at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence.

Beatrice Townsend
John Singer Sargent
"Not only by looking, but by copying, he became familiar with the works of the Venetians and other painters before he began his professional training as one of the first pupils who came to the studio of M. Carolus Duran. Here he showed himself American rather than English by a practical common sense and a reasonable docility, which led him to put himself in reality and not in name only, into the position of a pupil. He had none of the obstinacy which leads some Englishmen to think they know more than their professor. These false pupils fear the loss of an originality which they may never have possessed, and which, unless they acquire facility of expression, must remain for ever unrevealed to the world. A vague feeling of originality which cannot be expressed is a very doubtful possession, and may only consist in ignorance of what can be done with paint. People who have never seriously grappled with Art fail to realise how much the  strangeness of certain works is involuntary, and arises from the inability of the authors to make them correspond to their intentions. Anyhow it cannot but be good practice to learn to keep to an ensemble of a certain kind, even if it be not of one's own discovery. Thus the artist acquires facility, certainty, and a standard with which to gauge success when he would realise an intention of his own....Mr. Sargent devoted himself to the routine of the studio without seeking to appear original."

International acclaim as a portrait artist came early in his life and followed him throughout his career. In May 1874 he was admitted into the atelier of the Parisian painter and art instructor Carolus-Duran, a friend of Eduard Manet and Claude Monet, who believed in precise, realistic painting and worked directly on the canvas with a full brush. This technique encouraged Sargent to work in a broad, painterly style. Here he learnt the fluid, painterly style associated with the new interest in the 17th century bravura artists Diego Velasquez and Frans Hals. After mastering the techniques of old masters while an art student in Paris, Sargent created a scandal when, in 1884, he exhibited a portrait of 23-year-old Virginie Gautreau at the Paris Salon. The portrait, which emphasized the woman's bare shoulders and well-endowed figure, became known as Madame X and today is one of New York's Metropolitan Museum's most popular paintings. At the time, however, Sargent was ostracized from Parisian society. He relocated to London in 1890, where he established a successful career as a portraitist.
                                      Madame X (or Madame Pierre Gautreau)
At the turn of the century, he was constantly preoccupied with mural paintings for the Boston Public Library, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University, for which he had received a series of commissions beginning in 1890. At that time, he began to make many travel studies in watercolor during travels to Spain, Italy, the Alps, the Near East and North America. Sargent's love of the informal and the sensual are illustrated in the numerous watercolors and oil paintings. The subjects include brightly colored rooms decorated with sumptuous fabrics, Tuscan gardens with lush foliage, Venetian street and canal scenes and witty, brilliantly executed portrait sketches of Sargent's friends and associates.

Florence: Fountain, Boboli Gardens                 
                         In The Luxembourg Gardens
                                                        The Rialto Venice

By 1900 Sargent tried to move away from formal portraiture and the fashionable world that generated most of the commissions. He turned to landscape, traveling often to Venice, and produced many oils and watercolors that were rarely exhibited or sold. In 1916-1918 Sargent stayed in the United States, painting landscapes, murals and portraits of John D. Rockefeller and President Woodrow Wilson.

Sargent never married.

He was extremely private regarding his personal life, although the painter Jacques-Émile Blanche, who was one of his early sitters, said after his death that Sargent's sex life "was notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous. He was a frenzied bugger.” The truth of this may never be established. Some scholars have suggested that Sargent was homosexual. He had personal associations with Prince Edmond de Polignac and Count Robert de Montesquiou. His male nudes reveal complex and well-considered artistic sensibilities about the male physique and male sensuality; this can be particularly observed in his portrait of Thomas E. McKeller, but also in Tommies Bathing, nude sketches for Hell and Judgement, and his portraits of young men, like Bartholomy Maganosco and Head of Olimpio Fusco.[2] However, there were many friendships with women, as well, and a similar suppressed sensualism informs his female portrait and figure studies (notably Egyptian Girl, 1891). Art historian Deborah Davis suggests that Sargent's interest in women he considered exotic, Rosina Ferrara, Amélie Gautreau and Judith Gautier, was prompted by infatuation that transcended aesthetic appreciation.[3] The likelihood of an affair with Louise Burkhardt, the model for Lady with the Rose, is accepted by Sargent scholars

When he died in 1925, memorial exhibitions were mounted in Boston, London and New York.

from the American Artist magazine on John Sargent’s technique:

“The information we do have has come from examination of his pictures and direct analysis of his paint. The same commonly available range of pigments is seen in virtually all of the Tate's later portraits and on existing palettes. The range is quite wide but does not include every pigment available at that time. He regularly used Mars yellow (a synthetic iron oxide) and cadmium yellow; viridian and emerald green, sometimes mixed; vermilion and Mars red, both alone and mixed; madder; synthetic ultramarine or cobalt blue; and ivory black, sienna, and Mars brown. The dark backgrounds of many portraits include a mixture of ivory black, Mars brown, and a generous quantity of paint medium: a combination that produces a color similar to the traditional Van Dyke brown. A pale shade of chrome yellow, cerulean blue, red lead, cadmium red, and cobalt violet were found on occasion, but not in every portrait examined. There is a more limited selection of blue and yellow pigments in the later portraits than in the earlier ones. This narrow range of blues,yellows, and greens in his palette went some way to create a color harmony and to fix a cool or a warm overall tone to each painting.

Sargent mixed lighter colors such as flesh tones by adding to lead white, vermilion, and a selection of other pigments including bone black, on occasion rose madder, and even green viridian. Mixing them together roughly on the palette, he then worked them into and onto adjacent brushstrokes on the canvas to give more subtle variations in tone.”

(Jacqueline Ridge and Joyce Townsend; "How Sargent Made it Look Easy"; American Artist magazine; August, 1999, page 29)

"If you paint your friends, they and you are chiefly concerned about the likeness. You can't discard a canvas when you please and begin anew -- you can't go on indefinitely till you have solved a problem" He disapproved (Miss Heyneman continues) of my palette and brushes. On the palette the paints had not been put out with any system. "You do not want dabs of colour," he said, "you want plenty of paint to paint with." Then the brushes came in for derision. "No wonder your painting is like feathers if you use these." Having scraped the palette clean he put out enough paint so it seemed for a dozen pictures. "Painting is quite hard enough" he said "without adding to your difficulties by keeping your tools in bad condition. You want good thick brushes that will hold the paint and that will resist in a sense the stroke on the canvas."

He then with a bit of charcoal placed the head with no more than a few careful lines over which he passed a rag, so that it was on a perfectly clean greyish coloured canvas (which he preferred) faintly showing where the lines had been that he began to paint. At the start he used sparingly a little turpentine to rub in a general tone over the background and to outline the head (the real outline where the light and shadow meet, not the place where the head meets the background)- to indicate the mass of the hair and the tone of the dress. The features were not even suggested. This was a matter of a few moments. For the rest he used his colour without a medium of any kind, neither oil, turpentine or any admixture. "The thicker you paint, the more your colour flows" he explained.

He had put in this general outline very rapidly hardly more than smudges, but from the moment that he began really to paint, he worked with a kind of concentrated deliberation, a slow haste so to speak holding his brush poised in the air for an instant and then putting it just where and how he intended it to fall.
An interesting booklet on John Singer Sargent's teachings. Click here and get a glimpse. It's only nine pages long.
JOHN S. SARGENT.; His Portraits, Sketches and Studies Exhibited in Boston. New York Times.
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) Thematic Essay. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
The Metropolitan Museum of Art