John Singer Sargent, Painter And Watercolorist

A discussion of the life and art of John Singer Sargent, with special emphasis on his watercolor paintings.

John Singer Sargent, an American artist, was born in 1856 in Florence, Italy. His family was American, but through his childhood their nomadic lifestyle took him all over Europe, and gave him a great love of traveling. Sargent went on to spend much of his life in Europe. He has been both celebrated and criticized, and both fame and scandal marked his career, but his importance to the world of art cannot be denied.

Sargent's mother introduced him to sketching, which was a hobby of hers, and Sargent continued the tradition throughout his lifetime. He sketched and painted throughout his family's nomadic travels in pencil and watercolor. An artist friend of the family took him on a sketching trip and he took a drawing course in Florence, but his official studies began at the Atelier (school) of French painter Carolus-Duram in Paris. In addition to these painting classes, Sargent competed for a place in a drawing course at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris's prestigious art school. In the summer of 1876 Sargent first visited the United States, and that fall he began taking his first commissions for professional artworks. In 1877 a portrait of a family friend was accepted into the Paris Salon, the most important art competition of the time, establishing him as a professional artist. The subject of this first Salon piece""a fashionable portrait""is what Sargent's teacher was known for, and would become a niche of Sargent's as well.

Opinion on Sargent fell in as broad a range as is possible. His Venetian watercolors have been praised to the skies by some, while others accused him of being a "travel-book illustrator" rather than a true artist. His oils were criticized as too flamboyant and his brushstrokes, unrestrained. However, these criticisms from art critics did not deter Sargent's wealthy patrons. He painted people of all ages, primarily of wealthy families and/or prominent social backgrounds. Sargent's reputation grew with association to this high-class clientele and soon those wishing to establish their own or their family's reputations in high society sought him out for fashionable portraits.

In 1884 one of these portraits, a painting of Madame Pierre Gautreau, caused a huge scandal when it was exhibited. The woman posing was portrayed in too alluring a manner, it was said, and the portrait was paired with a portrait of the man it was rumored she was involved in an affair with. Sargent repainted parts of the portrait, and renamed it Madame X, but the damage had been done. He and several others were forced to leave Paris and wait for the scandal to die down. This scandal did not, however, diminish Sargent's popularity as a portraitist. Both before and after the scandal of Madame X Sargent was considered the most important portraitist of his time. Among those he painted before his death in 1925 are Henry James, John D. Rockefeller, Sr. President Theodore Roosevelt, and members of any number of wealthy and well-known families.

Despite his success as a portraitist Sargent maintained a wide variety of interests throughout his career. His public oeuvre includes several murals, and a body of genre paintings, but he was primarily known as a portraitist, and so worked throughout his career to broaden his reputation. Sargent used watercolor paintings to work out ideas for compositions, to make quick copies of finished oil paintings, or to create fully developed paintings in their own right.

Sargent's portraits were in oil paint and he did other kinds of painting in that medium as well, but some of his most personal works were done in watercolors. In particular, he did many watercolor paintings in Venice. When they were first painted, Sargent's watercolors weren't popular with the general public. Sargent began giving his watercolors from Venice to artistic-minded friends, feeling that they would not be otherwise appreciated.

These paintings show his technical virtuosity as well as artistic inspiration. Sargent used a variety of watercolor techniques, including wax resists, challenging washes, and varied brushstrokes to express his subjects accurately and with energy. He usually started with a pencil drawing, over which he layered the watercolor and sometimes added gouache (another water-based paint type).

Despite the advent of oil paint in tubes, made widely available around the time of the Impressionists, watercolor was still one of the easiest mediums for a painter to use while traveling or while painting 'en plein air' (out of doors). It remains the easiest media to transport and clean up, because, as the name suggests, the paint requires only water, rather than turpentine or oil, to be applied to the painting surface, and to clean the brushes. Watercolor was particularly useful to Sargent, who while in Venice would paint spontaneous scenes from a gondola. The movement of the gondola, and the unusual angle resulted in quick, fresh compositions and interesting and unusual cropping. Sargent's compositions resembled those of Degas and other Impressionist artists, who were in turn inspired by Japanese printmaking. Accompanied by the sensual brushstrokes in Sargent's oil paintings, these compositions led some critics of the time to consider Sargent an admirer of the newly named Post-Impressionists. Sargent denied this connection and instead claimed Ingres, Raphael and El Greco as his biggest influences.

Sargent's watercolors were painted largely outside, and his techniques gave them texture and energy reflecting his own passion for his subject matter. From the time of his childhood, John Singer Sargent loved painting what he saw. Despite his long career in professional portraiture, which he grew to dislike, Sargent's deepest passions were often revealed through the deft marks of watercolor.

Selected Bibliography:

Esten, John. Sargent Painting Out-Of-Doors. Universe Publishing: Singapore. 2000.

Fairbrother, Trevor. John Singer Sargent. Harry N. Adams, Inc.: New York. 1994.

Little, Carl. The Watercolors of John Singer Sargent. Chameleon Books: Chesterfield, Massachusetts. 1998.

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