The European American: John Singer Sargent


On this date 84 years ago, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) passed away. The American expat—who never actually set foot in America until he was 21 years old—is regarded as the "most successful portrait painter of his era." Over the course of his career, Sargent produced at least 900 oil paintings—including "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" (left) and "Lady Agnew" (right)—and 2,000 watercolors, as well as "countless" charcoal sketches and pencil drawings.

1. With "nomadic expat" parents, John Singer Sargent had a less than typical upbringing. He was born in Florence, Italy, with American citizenship and spent his youth travelling Europe, particularly Italy, France, Austria, and Germany. A few attempts were made to send Sargent for formally schooling, but none were successful. Despite the lack of formal schooling, Sargent grew up well-accomplished: he was fluent in French, Italian, German, and English and was a skilled pianist and painter.

2. At the height of his career, Sargent was bringing in about $5,000 a portrait, equivalent to about $130,000 per portrait today. Sargent conducted all commission negotiations himself. After the details were settled, he would visit the client's home to see where the portrait would be hung and to review the client's wardrobe. The client would usually come to Sargent's studio for 8 to 10 sittings, during which time Sargent would chat with his clients while painting directly onto the canvas; he rarely sketched first. On occasion, Sargent would even play the piano for his clients.

3. Sargent once remarked, "Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend." With the Wertheimer family, though, he gained friends. Sargent was commissioned in 1898 to paint portraits of Asher Wertheimer and his wife for their silver anniversary; the two portraits evolved into 12 family portraits over the course of 10 years, Sargent's largest commission from a single patron. The commission occupied all of Sargent's time, to the extent that he claimed to be in a state of "chronic Wertheimerism." He became close with several of the family members during those 10 years.

4. Although Sargent is known for his portraits, he apparently didn't enjoy painting them very much. Sargent complained of portraiture, "What a nuisance having to entertain the sitter and to look happy when one feels wretched." After closing his studio in 1907, at the age of 51, Sargent exclaimed, "I hate to paint portraits! I hope never to paint another portrait in my life"¦ I have had enough of it."

5. Sargent was extremely private about his personal life, but he maintained a very active social life. A fellow American painter described Sargent's studio as "always a sociable place." Sargent's circle of friends included Henry James, Claude Monet, and August Rodin, all of whom he painted. Robert Louis Stevenson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson also sat for him. While Sargent never married, his sex life "was notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous," according to another painter.

6. In 1897, Sargent received three international honors. He was elected an academician at the National Academy of Design in New York and at the Academy of Art in London, and he was made a member of France's Legion of Honor. Ten years later, he was also offered a knighthood, but he declined the honor, choosing instead to remain an American citizen.

Larger versions of "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" (1885) and "Lady Agnew" (1892) are available. Fans should check out the John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery; the collections of Sargent's work at the ARC, the Met, artnet, and NYU's Grey Art Gallery; Sargent's sketchbook for "The Triumph of Religion"; his letters in the Archives of American Art; Sargent's Harvard murals; the Sargent education guides from the Seattle Art Museum and NEH; Sarah Choate Sears' portrait of Sargent; and this photograph of Sargent at work in his studio. "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.