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John Singer Sargent Beyond the Portrait Studio: Paintings, Drawings, and Watercolors from The Metropolitan Museum of Art


John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is one of America's most acclaimed artists. Though primarily recognized for his extraordinary society portraits, Sargent was an artist whose diverse interests and passion for travel took him far beyond the portrait studio. For nearly six decades, from the time he was a boy, Sargent traveled extensively, always with a sketchbook, capturing the spectacular landscapes, exotic street scenes, grand architecture, and fascinating people he encountered. These expressive drawings, lush watercolors, and rich oil paintings are among Sargent's most brilliant works and illustrate the full range of his exceptional talent beyond portraiture. More than 100 of the works are on view in an exhibition from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opening at the Saint Louis Art Museum on February 9, 2002. (left: Idle Sails, 1913; watercolor and graphite on white wove paper; 13 5/8 x 21 inches; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase: Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1915)

The exhibition includes a selection of remarkable drawings from Sargent's youth, as well as works from his student years in Paris, Spain, Morocco, and Venice and the Impressionist paintings of his early professional career in England. The exhibition also includes Sargent's studies for murals in Boston and Cambridge and his rarely exhibited watercolors done as an official war artist on the western front in France in 1918. Highlights of the exhibition are Sargent's dazzling exhibition watercolors of Venice, the Italian lake district, and Spain, as well as his sometimes experimental watercolors created in North Africa and the Near East, and during tours of the United States (including Florida and the Rocky Mountains).

This exhibition was curated by H. Barbara Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, and Stephanie L. Herdrich, research associate, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to commemorate the 75th anniversary of John Singer Sargent's death. At the Saint Louis Art Museum, Cornelia Homburg, assistant director for curatorial affairs and curator of modern art, has the curatorial respolzsibility.



Born in Florence, Italy, in 1856 to well-to-do, expatriate Americans, John Singer Sargent traveled extensively throughout his childhood, as his family changed residences with the seasons. During winters in Italy and summers in the Alps, the young Sargent carried sketchbooks with him to capture the spectacular scenery and interesting people he encountered. These early experiences imbued him with a love of travel that would last throughout his life and continue to inspire his work. (left: Spanish Fountain, 1912; watercolor and graphite on white wove paper; 21 x 13 3/4 inches; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase: Joseph Pulitzcr Bequest, 1915)

Sargent moved to Paris with his family in 1874 and began his formal training with noted portraitist Carolus-Duran before enrolling in Paris's prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where Monet, Degas, and Renoir also studied. During his time in Paris, Sargent befriended Monet and became interested in the work of the Impressionists. He visited Monet's studio in Giverny several times in the 1880s and painted two portraits of the artist. The influence of Impressionism is obvious in Sargent's watercolors, where his genius for rendering color and light is most visible.

In 1886, Sargent moved to London. Despite his increasing fame as a portraitist, he still made time to travel and pursue his interest in watercolors, spending several summers in the English countryside and further exploring Impressionism. He also made visits to Egypt, Greece, and Turkey, and revisited favorite spots in Spain and Venice, painting and sketching as he went.

Though he continued to be in high demand as a portraitist to the wealthy, he declined most portrait requests after 1905 to focus on commissions of a grander scale and devote himself more fully to the landscapes and figural work that had interested him throughout his career. To that end, he traveled throughout Europe, America, and the Middle East, painting over 700 watercolors. He returned to Venice and Rome, took vacations with his family in Spain and Switzerland, traveled through the Rocky Mountains, and visited Palestine. He also spent some time living and painting in Florida as travel to his favorite European locales became difficult due to World War I. (right: Venetian Canal, 1913; watercolor and graphite on off-white wove paper; 15 3/4 x 21 inches; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase: Joseph Pulitzcr Bequest, 1915)

Near the end of the war, Sargent spent several months making studies and sketches at the western front in France. During the latter years of his career he worked on several large-scale murals for the Boston Public Library, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and Harvard University's Widener Library. Sargent died in London in 1925 as he was about to return to Boston for the installation of the final sections of the murals for the Museum of Fine Arts.


Wall Text of the Exhibition



John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), the renowned expatriate American artist, is primarily known for his portraits. However, Sargent sought inspiration outside the portrait studio throughout his career. He traveled widely, drawing and painting the people, places, and things that captured his attention. This pattern began during childhood, persisted through his student years, and was a hallmark of his mature career, when he created murals, landscapes, and genre scenes, as well as portraits. After 1905, Sargent declined most of the portrait commissions he was offered and spent more time traveling, for mural research and pleasure, and recording his experiences, especially in dazzling watercolors. (left: Venetian Passageway, ca 1905; watercolor, gouache and graphite on white wove paper; 21 3/16 x 14 1/2 inches; Tbe Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond, 1950)

The paintings, drawings, and watercolors in this exhibition all come from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. That museum purchased a number of important watercolors from Sargent in 1915 and was given many drawings and watercolors by Sargent's sisters in the early 1930s. In 1950, Sargent's sister Violet donated a very large and important group of works that range from early childhood drawings and sketchbooks to the highly accomplished, often experimental, compositions of his mature years. The selection here reflects Sargent's multifaceted career as seen in intimate, personal sketches and studies, brilliant watercolors, and Impressionist canvasses.


Childhood and Youthful Works, 1856-74

Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, in 1856. His father, a physician, and his mother, the daughter of a successful merchant, traveled to Europe from Philadelphia two years earlier. Able to meet the family's expenses with her small annuity, Mrs. Sargent persuaded her husband to give up his profession and remain in Europe. The family changed residences with the seasons, passing winters in Florence, Rome, or Nice and summers in the Alps or other cool regions.

The young John Sargent showed prodigious talent. Encouraged by his mother, who was an amateur artist, he sketched and painted ardently. Mrs. Sargent's zeal for what her husband described as a "nomadic sort of life" fueled the boy's imagination and furnished him with diverse subjects, from ancient monuments to dramatic scenery. Sargent's first art lessons were given by a German-American landscape painter in Rome, during the winter of 1868-69.

Sargent's responses to his early experiences are manifest in many impressive drawings and watercolors. In particular, three sketchbooks in which he recorded his family's travels in Switzerland during the summers of 1869 and 1870 attest to his precocious ability and earnest ambition.

In 1870 Dr. Sargent acknowledged in a letter to relatives his son's "strong desire to be an Artist by profession." In 1873-74 Sargent enrolled in the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence, which he left in May 1874 to move with his family to Paris.


Student Years in Paris and Early Career, 1874-89

In Paris in May 1874, Sargent entered the teaching atelier of Carolus-Duran, a portraitist who emphasized painting over draftsmanship and encouraged his pupils to study old masters with "painterly" styles, especially the Spaniard Diego Velázquez. Sargent also matriculated for three semesters in the conservative Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the French government school. He maintained his habits of creative eclecticism and regular travel, which inspired the genre scenes that he showed alongside his critically acclaimed portraits.

By autumn 1879, no longer attending classes regularly, he began a period of extensive travel to study old masters and pursue the picturesque in Spain and Morocco, Holland, Italy, the south of France, and England. His sketches in graphite, watercolor, and oil were made as much for his own pleasure as for their use in more ambitious works.

Having for some time considered moving to London, he did so in the spring of 1886. As English patrons were slow to seek him out, Sargent had time and creative energy to spare. He spent summers in the mid- to late 1880s in several English villages, engaged in Impressionist projects. These were nourished by his friendship with Claude Monet, whom he had met in Paris and visited in Giverny.


Professional Activity Beyond the Portrait Studio, 1890-1925

Sargent visited the United States in 1887-88 and again in 1889-90. Before he returned to England he was invited to decorate the Special Collections Hall of the new Boston Public Library. He was qualified for this prestigious commission by his cosmopolitan background, academic training, familiarity with traditional art, and circle of well-educated friends. Still only in his mid-thirties, he may have wished to declare himself a more serious artist than his portraits and subject pictures announced him to be.

For the library Sargent invented an erudite interpretation of the history of religion to exemplify the evolution of culture. He executed the murals on canvas in his English studios and saw the last of them installed in 1919. He also painted murals of mythological subjects for the new entrance rotunda and staircase of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1916-25), and images commemorating Harvard University's war dead for its Widener Memorial Library (1921-22). These complex mural schemes required more preparatory works than Sargent generally used for portraits, for which he made few studies.


World War I

In 1918 Sargent accepted a commission from the British Ministry of Information's War Memorial Committee to create a picture to commemorate the joint efforts of British and American troops. He left England in July and, while battles were still being waged, traveled to Arras, Ypres, and Peronne along the French-Belgian border.

While Sargent's three-month tour of the western front ultimately resulted in a melodramatic canvas of soldiers blinded by mustard gas (Gassed, 1919, Imperial War Museum, London), his more frequent, and more candid or informal watercolors reveal the same sense of observation he took on his other travels. He captured in watercolor the scenes around him -- from the dramatic destruction of the countryside to the everyday activities of the soldiers. These works display Sargent's interest in recording the reflections of light in nature, and show little of the horrors of war.


Travel, 1890-1925

Having decided to illustrate the history of religion for the Boston Public Library murals, Sargent toured Egypt, Greece, and Turkey in 1890, and Syria and Palestine in 1905-6 to sketch and paint. In fact, his wish to travel and his long-standing fascination with exotic places may have prompted him to contrive the complex library program.

After 1900 Sargent enjoyed long summer holidays with family and friends in rural locales, where he indulged his passion for plein-air painting. He favored regions he had visited as a child: the Alps, the Italian lake district, and Spain. He often journeyed on to Venice or destinations farther south where he could seek material for his murals. When World War I limited these excursions, he found comparable scenes in the Canadian Rockies and Florida.

Sargent chose subjects that invited bravura rendering and explored the technical limits of oil and watercolor. The transparency and spontaneity of watercolor in particular served his unfailing interest in representing color and light. A friend noted: "To live with Sargent's water-colours is to live with sunshine captured and held."

John Singer Sargent Beyond the Portrait Studio: Paintings, Drawings, and Watercolors from The Metropolitan Museum of Art was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Its presentation in St. Louis is funded, in part, by The Enterprise Rent-A-Car Foundation and the St. Louis Business Journal.

See our earlier article John Singer Sargent: Beyond the Portrait Studio, Paintings and Drawings from the Collection (3/23/00).

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Saint Louis Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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