Florence 12 January 1856 – 14 April 1925
His parents were American. John’s father Fitz-William was an eye surgeon at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia 1844-1854. After John's older sister died at the age of two, his mother Mary suffered a breakdown, and the couple decided to go abroad to recover. They remained nomadic expatriates for the rest of their lives. John was born in Florence.
Young Sargent was a rambunctious child, more interested in outdoor activities than his studies. His mother was convinced that travelling around Europe, visiting museums and churches, would give young Sargent a satisfactory education. Several attempts to have him formally schooled failed, owing mostly to their itinerant life. Sargent's mother was a fine amateur artist and his father was a skilled medical illustrator. Early on, she gave him sketchbooks and encouraged drawing excursions. Young Sargent worked with care on his drawings, and he enthusiastically copied images from The Illustrated London News.
At thirteen, his mother reported that John "sketches quite nicely, & has a remarkably quick and correct eye. If we could afford to give him really good lessons, he would soon be quite a little artist." At age thirteen, he received some watercolour lessons from Carl Welsch, a German landscape painter. Though his education was far from complete, Sargent grew up to be a highly literate and cosmopolitan young man. He wrote "I have learned in Venice to admire Tintoretto immensely and to consider him perhaps second only to Michelangelo and Titian."
An attempt to study at the Academy of Florence failed as the school was re-organizing at the time, so after returning to Paris from Florence, Sargent began his art studies with Carolus-Duran. The young French portrait artist, who had a meteoric rise, was noted for his bold technique and modern teaching methods.
In 1874, on the first attempt, Sargent passed the rigorous exam required to gain admission to the École des Beaux-Arts, the premier art school in France. He took drawing classes, which included anatomy and perspective, and gained a silver prize. He also spent much time in self-study, drawing in museums and painting in a studio he shared with James Carroll Beckwith. He became both a valuable friend and Sargent's primary connection with the American artists abroad. Sargent also took some lessons from Léon Bonnat
He was considered the "leading portrait painter of his generation" for his evocations of Edwardian era luxury. During his career, he created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolours, 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. Sargent lived most of his life in Europe.
In 1879, at age 23, Sargent painted a portrait of teacher Carolus-Duran; the virtuoso effort met with public approval, and announced the direction his mature work would take. Its showing at the Paris Salon was both a tribute to his teacher and an advertisement for portrait commissions
After leaving Carolus-Duran's atelier, Sargent visited Spain. There he studied the paintings of Velázquez with a passion, absorbing the master's technique, and in his travels gathered ideas for future works.
His most controversial work, Portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1884) is now considered one of his best works, and was the artist's personal favourite; he stated in 1915, "I suppose it is the best thing I have done." when unveiled in Paris at the 1884 Salon, it aroused such a negative reaction that it prompted Sargent's move to London. It took well over a year to complete the painting. The first version of the portrait of Madame Gautreau, with the famously plunging neckline, white-powdered skin, and arrogantly cocked head, featured an off-the-shoulder dress strap which made the overall effect more daring and sensual. Sargent changed the strap to try to dampen the furor, but the damage had been done. French commissions dried up and he told his friend Edmund Gosse in 1885 that he contemplated giving up painting for music or business.
Sargent began sending paintings for exhibition at the Royal Academy. These included the portraits of Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881), a flamboyant essay in red and his first full-length male portrait, and the more traditional Mrs. Henry White (1883). The ensuing portrait commissions encouraged Sargent to complete his move to London in 1886. Sargent spent much time painting outdoors in the English countryside.
On a visit to Monet at Giverny in 1885, Sargent painted one of his most Impressionistic portraits, of Monet at work painting outdoors with his new bride nearby.
Sargent's first major success at the Royal Academy came in 1887, with the enthusiastic response to Carnation, Lily,Lily, Rose, a large piece, painted on site, of two young girls lighting lanterns in an English garden in Broadway in the Cotswolds. The painting was immediately purchased by the Tate Gallery.
His first trip to New York and Boston as a professional artist in 1887-88 produced over twenty important commissions, including portraits of Isabella Stewart Gardner, the famed Boston art patron. His portrait of Mrs. Adrian Iselin, wife of a New York businessman, revealed her character in one of his most insightful works. In Boston, Sargent was honoured with his first solo exhibition, which presented twenty-two of his paintings.
Back in London, Sargent was quickly busy again. His working methods were by then well-established, Sargent would visit the client's home to see where the painting was to hang. He would often review a client's wardrobe to pick suitable attire. Some portraits were done in the client's home, but more often in his studio. He usually required eight to ten sittings from his clients, though he would try to capture the face in one sitting. He usually kept up pleasant conversation and sometimes he would take a break and play the piano for his sitter. Sargent seldom used pencil or oil sketches, and instead lay down oil paint directly.
Sargent worked on the murals from 1895 through 1919.All of Sargent's murals are in the Boston/Cambridge area. They are in the Boston Public Library, the Museum of Fine Arts, and Harvard's Widener Library. Sargent's largest scale works are the mural decorations that grace the Boston Public Library depicting the history of religion and the gods of polytheism.
Upon his return to England in 1918, Sargent was commissioned as a war artist by the British Ministry of Information. In his large painting Gassed and in many watercolours, he depicted scenes from the Great War.
He died on April 14, 1925 in England of heart disease. He is interred in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, Surrey.[