Portland Museum of Art

Portland, Maine

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John Singer Sargent


The elegant portraits of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) have indelibly formed our impression of high society at the turn of the century. However, portraiture was only one aspect of the career of this remarkably gifted and prolific artist. John Singer Sargent, on view July 3 through September 26, 1999 at the Portland Museum of Art, features 28 works, including oils, watercolors, and drawings, that provide an overview of the full spectrum of Sargent's concerns and achievements as an artist. This exhibition, drawn from the Museum's permanent collection and several private collections, has been organized to coincide with a major retrospective of Sargent's work at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (right: Mrs. Henry St. John Smith, 1883, oil on canvas, 25 5/16 x 20 7/16 inches, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Henry St. John Smith and children, 1986.65)

Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, to American parents and was raised in cosmopolitan European society. His artistic talent revealed itself early, as evidenced by The Alps, Blumlisalp und Oschinensee (1870), an accomplished watercolor by the budding 14 year-old artist When he was 18, he moved with his family to Paris and began his first formal studies with the fashionable portraitist Carolus-Duran. (left: Mrs. Charles Pelham Curtis, 1903, oil on canvas, 59 7/8 x 35 1/4 inches, Gift of Sally Cary Curtis Iselin in memory of Charles Pelham Curtis, 1982.275)

Within a few years he had begun to enjoy success and patronage himself as a painter of society portraits. His paintings of Mr. and Mrs. Henry St. John Smith (1880 and 1883) reflect the dramatic, spontaneous style that earned him recognition during his years in Paris. In 1884, he moved his studio to London and gradually built on his early acclaim until, by the turn of the century, he was the leading portraitist in both Britain and America. The height of this international career is represented by Sargent's Portrait of Mrs. Charles Pelham Curtis (1903) which was painted in the Boston home of his friend Isabella Stewart Gardner.

From the start of his career, Sargent also painted landscapes and genre scenes, many of which derived from his seasonal travels throughout Europe and North Africa. This aspect of Sargent's work is represented in the exhibition by an early oil sketch of the Capri girl (Rosina Ferrara, one of his most famous subjects) as well as oils and watercolors from his extensive travels in Spain, Italy, Africa, and the Alps. In the early years of this century, watercolor -- with its portability, fluidity, and vibrancy -- became a particularly important vehicle for the development of the artist's ideas. (left: Flotsam and Jetsam, 1908, watercoor gouache and graphite on paper, 13 7/8 x 18 7/8 inches, The Joan Whitney Payson Collection at the Portland Museum of Art, Lent by Joan Whitney Payson)

Sargent ceased painting portraits in 1907 to focus on other aspects of his art. (Most of his portraits after that date took the form of drawings, of which there are several examples in the exhibition.) The last two decades of his life were increasingly devoted to commissions for public murals. Charcoal sketches for murals at the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, reveal the exhaustive preparation that went into these decorations, which took the artist years to develop and complete. His involvement with these projects and the onset of World War I brought Sargent to the United States more than ever during these years. He even found his way to remote coastal Maine, as evidenced by Woods in Maine (1922), painted on Ironbound Island during a summer visit with friends. Sargent passed away three years later, on the eve of the unveiling of the last of his Boston Museum murals.

The Sargent exhibitions on view throughout New England this summer mark the first occasion since the memorial exhibitions mounted after his death that so many of the artist's works have been gathered for public display.

John Singer Sargent is made possible by the generous support of Migis Lodge.

Read more about the Portland Museum of Art in the Resource Library

For further biographical information on the artist cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/18/10

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