National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS
American Impressionism and Realism

Biography: John Singer Sargent, 1856 - 1925


John Singer Sargent 1856 - 1925 Born in Florence in 1856 to expatriate American parents, John Singer Sargent received his first formal art instruction in Rome in 1868, and sporadically attended the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence between 1870 and 1873. In 1874 he was accepted at the Paris studio of the portraitist Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, and the next fall entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts to study drawing. He began to exhibit at the Salon in 1877. Over the next few years several experiences had a significant impact on Sargent's artistic development: during a trip to Spain in 1879 he copied paintings by Velázquez at the Prado; in 1880 he visited Belgium and Holland, where he copied works by Frans Hals; and in 1881 he met James McNeill Whistler in Venice.

During the 1870s and 1880s, Sargent painted genre scenes, based in part on his travels to Spain and Venice, but it was his remarkable skills as a portraitist upon which his reputation rested. The scandal caused by Sargent's daring portrait of Madame Gautreau at the Salon of 1884 precipitated his departure to London the following year. In England, Sargent's style of working was seen as peculiarly French. In 1885 he joined Francis David Millet in the Worcestershire village of Broadway, where he began his masterpiece of English impressionism, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. By 1886, he had made London his permanent home. A year later, Sargent visited and worked with Monet at Giverny, and made his first professional trip to America, where the demand for his portraiture brought him considerable fame.

In 1897 he was elected an academician at the National Academy of Design, New York, and the Royal Academy of Art, London, and he was made a member of the Legion of Honor in France.

By the turn of the century Sargent was recognized as the most acclaimed international society portraitist of the Edwardian era, and his clientele included the most affluent, aristocratic, and fashionable people of his time. Sargent chafed in later life at the limitations of portraiture, and around the turn of the century he worked increasingly at other subjects and in other mediums, particularly watercolor, in which he was extraordinarily gifted.

Although an expatriate who lived in London, Sargent was committed to America's cultural development and executed important mural decorations for the Boston Public Library (1890 - 1919), the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1916 - 1925), and Harvard University's Widener Library (1921 - 1922). He died in London in 1925.


Charteris, Evan. John Sargent. New York, 1927.

Downes, William Howe. John S. Sargent: His Life and Work. Boston, 1925.

Fairbrother, Trevor J. John Singer Sargent. New York, 1994.

Hills, Patricia, et al. John Singer Sargent [exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art] (New York, 1986).

Kilmurray, Elaine, and Richard Ormond, eds. John Singer Sargent [exh. cat., Tate Gallery; National Gallery of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston] (London, 1998).

Mount, Charles Merrill. John Singer Sargent: A Biography. Rev. ed. New York, 1969.

Ratcliff, Carter. John Singer Sargent. New York, 1982.

See also, John Singer Sargent exhibition brochure, 1999.