How did the paintings of John Singer Sargent ever fall out of favor? He created stunning watercolor landscapes and oil portraits that reveal a virtuosity described as “insolent.” Sargent, it was said, could quickly sketch a likeness the way most people sign their names.
As a boy, all he ever wanted to be was an artist. His parents, Americans who roamed around Europe, encouraged him. He showed up at the Carolus Duran studio in Paris and presented his work, hoping for acceptance as a student. He astonished his future classmates, who viewed him as a prodigy.
During his lifetime he created about 3,000 paintings, including 900 in oil and 2,000 in watercolor. They made him rich and they made him famous. But by the time he died in 1925, critics didn’t consider him “modern” enough. He went from prodigy to Gilded Age antique.
Here, then, are eight fun facts about the flamboyantly talented John Singer Sargent.
1. Roger Fry was his bete noire.
Art critic Roger Fry had no use for John Singer Sargent. That mattered – a lot. Fry had enormous influence over popular taste in art during the early 20th century. “In so far as taste can be changed by one man, it was changed by Roger Fry,” wrote art historian Kenneth Clark. Fry promoted the Parisian avant-garde, painters like Cezanne, Matisse and Van Gogh.
In 1910, Fry organized an exhibit in London called Manet and the Post-Impressionists. Critics savaged the show, and so Fry responded by listing artists who supported that school of painting. He included John Singer Sargent, whose work he had already criticized. Sargent replied with two letters to the editor of The Nation making it clear he had no use for post-Impressionism. From then on, the two men feuded.
Unfortunately for Sargent, Fry outlived him. The year after Sargent died, the Royal Academy in London held a memorial retrospective of his work. Fry viciously criticized the show, destroying Sargent’s reputation for a good 50 years.
2. Sargent was not born in the USA.
He considered himself an American, though he didn’t set foot in America until his 20th year. His parents wandered around Europe for decades. They always sought a better climate or cheaper places to live.
Sargent was born in Florence on Jan. 12, 1856, to Fitzwilliam Sargent, a Philadelphia physician, and Mary Newbold Singer, an heiress. By the time he turned 18 he had lived in London, Paris, Pau, Biarritz, Salzburg, Nice, St. Moritz, Venice, Lake Maggiore, Dresden and various cities in Spain. He spoke English, French, German and Italian, all fluently.
His mother loved Europe and the nomadic life. His father hated it. But she had the money, and they could live inexpensively in Europe. So they did.
Sargent considered Boston his American home. He had his first solo show at the St. Botolph Club in 1888, and won several major mural commissions in the city. Isabella Stewart Gardner, a friend, collected his work (you can see El Jaleo at the Gardner Museum). The Museum of Fine Arts Boston claims to hold the most complete collection of Sargent’s work, as well as his archives. When he died, the Boston Globe ran a front page story, Boston Claims Sargent, Great Master, As Her Own.
3. He preferred painting landscapes.
Sargent painted and drew landscapes since childhood. But making a living as an artist required critical acclaim for work shown at the Paris Salon, then the most important art event in the western world.
Thousands of people visited the exhibition, and the international press covered it. But the French Academie, which ran the Salon, held landscape painting in low regard. And so portrait paintings defined Sargent from the days of his early success.
He began to exhibit his bold and experimental watercolor landscapes after the turn of the century. They “caused a sensation in Britain and great excitement in America,” according to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. His watercolors still draw a crowd.
4. He had an illustrious family.
He came from an elite New England family. His ancestor Epes Sargent was one of the largest landowners in Gloucester, Mass., before the American Revolution.
His well-known relatives include the “merchant prince” Daniel Sargent, author Lucius Manley Sargent, artist Henry Sargent, horticulturist Henry Winthrop Sargent and Mississippi Territory Governor Winthrop Sargent.
The Gloucester home of another ancestor, essayist and women’s rights advocate Judith Sargent Murray, is now a house museum.
5. Was Sargent gay or straight?
No one knows for sure. He had several romances with women, though he never married. And his many sketches of male nudes suggest he was gay. In London, he was friends with his neighbor Oscar Wilde.
But he kept his sexuality to himself. However, one of his clients said that when in Venice, he was only interested in the gondoliers. After he died, one of his former sitters said, “Sargent’s sex life was notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous. He was a frenzied bugger.”
Richard Ormond, Sargent scholar and the painter’s great-grandnephew, argued that no one would ever know. “If [Sargent] had sexual relationships they must have been of a brief and transient nature and they have left no trace,” he wrote. “We simply do not know, and decoding messages from his work is no substitute for evidence.”
6. Sargent was Mr. Popularity.
Everybody liked him (except maybe Roger Fry). He was handsome, well mannered, well dressed and good at conversation, music and dancing. People sought him out to paint their portraits partly because sitting for him was so enjoyable.
He would visit the sitter’s home to see where the portrait would hang, and often went through the subject’s closet to pick out the right outfit. The frame he picked out himself. He earned about $5,000 per painting, or about $130,000. He used no assistants. In the 1890s he averaged about 14 portrait commissions a year.
While painting, he would stand back from the canvas, look at his subject, walk to the canvas, paint a few strokes, and then walk back, talking all the while. He estimated he covered four miles a day while painting portraits.
Sometimes he played the piano for his sitter. Eventually, he got tired of shucking and jiving for his wealthy patrons. “Painting a portrait would be quite amusing if one were not forced to talk while working…What a nuisance having to entertain the sitter and to look happy when one feels wretched,” he wrote.
In 1907, he vowed not to do any more portraits. “It is to me positive bliss to think that I shall soon be a free man,” he wrote, describing life after portrait painting. He closed his studio, but he did make a few exceptions for friends like Henry James.
7. Madame X was lazy and unpaintable.
His portrait of Mme. Emilie Gautreau, or Madame X, was the talk of the 1884 Paris Salon and not in a good way. A mob of Parisians flocked to the painting to make fun of it. The New York Times called it “absurd and atrocious.” Mme. Gautreau’s mother begged him to take the painting down, something Sargent couldn’t do. “All Paris mocks my daughter,” she cried.
The ridicule came as a shock. For a decade, nobody had said anything bad about Sargent’s work. But Madame X was different.
Sargent, usually so deft with the brush, struggled with Virginie Amelie Gautreau. An American married to a French banker, she had a reputation for taking on lovers. Sargent had a hard time getting her just right, and she didn’t like to sit still for long. In a letter, Sargent complained to a friend about “the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau.” When he finished it, he exhibited it only reluctantly at the Salon.
What was so odd, so shocking about a painting of a woman with a heavily powdered face in a low-cut gown? After all, Parisians were used to seeing paintings of nudes.
It was her arrogance, her theatricality, her “come hither” look – something well-bred women did not do. Madame X (for X-rated?) seems about to pop out of her gown into the arms of a man not her husband.
Some people liked it. A French critic, Louis de Fourcaud, called it a masterpiece, as it eventually came to be recognized. Sargent later called it the best thing he’d ever done.
8. His Boston Public Library Murals caused trouble.
He painted many Jewish people, but his mural The Church and the Synagogue got him into trouble with them. In the 1890s, he had a reputation as “the painter of the Jews.” He painted a number of upper-class Jewish subjects, including the family of Asher Wertheimer, the magisterial Mrs. Carl Meyer and her Children and Joseph Pulitzer.
He started working on one of his masterpieces, the Boston Public Library murals, in 1890. He didn’t finish them by the time of his death in 1925. (See them here.) The Church and the Synagogue belong to The Triumph of Religion series on the third floor of the McKim Building in Copley Square. Sargent portrayed Judaism and the synagogue as a grim, austere hag and Christianity and the church as a lovely young woman.
Dr. Israel Abraham wrote that “no Jewish artist would do the Church the artistic wrong which Sargent has done to the Synagogue.” Sargent was hurt and confused by charges of anti-Semitism. He explained that he drew on medieval iconography for his inspiration.
This story last updated in 2022.