Living in Western Europe for much of his life, John Singer Sargent became one of the world's greatest portraitists and muralists of his time. With his virtuoso handling of paint and ingenious compositions, he brilliantly captured his sitter's character, often focusing on their aristocratic refinement and individual hauteur. As ARC Chairman Fred Ross
notes: "The power of his compositions are legendary, and give his work a wall presence that surpasses most other artists from any period. He is perhaps the most sought after American artist of his time and his major works sell for many millions of dollars in the major auction houses of New York."
Sargent was born in Florence, Italy in 1856 to American ex-patriots. It would not be until age 21 that would he visit America for the first time. Well schooled and fluent in several languages, Sargent moved with ease in European aristocracy. When combined with his artistic training by the famous Parisian portraitist Carolus-Duran
[1838-1917], Sargent launched a lifelong career of success after success.
But his career was not without scandal.
As early as 1882, Sargent had a great desire to paint the portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau
(1859-1915). Madame Gautreau was an American from New Orleans and moved to Paris with her French mother after the death of her father. Not long after, she married the banker Pierre Gautreau and quickly established herself in Parisian society pages. Madame Gautreau did not commission Sargent. Instead, he was able to obtain an introduction and persuade her to let him paint her portrait. The finished product was exhibited in the Salon of 1884 as Portrait de Mme ***
, now known as Madame X
The painting caused a great deal of horror and scandal. The original portrait showed Madame Gautreau with her right shoulder strap erotically slipped over her shoulder. This eroticism, combined with her grave flesh tones, proved too much for conservative critics. Not long after the scandal, Sargent moved to London where he would live for the rest of his life. He kept the Portrait of Madame X
, and more than twenty years later, he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art
. Writing to the museum's director Edward Robinson
in 1916, Sargent wrote
: "I suppose it is the best thing I have done."
In London, Sargent quickly re-established his career as a portraitist, and through the patronage of several key London elites, he was once again able to secure the trust of his aristocratic sitters. The 1890s and early 1900s saw Sargent's career rise to unprecedented heights through important portrait and mural commissions.
While preparing for a trip to Boston from his London residence, Sargent died quietly in his sleep of a heart attack on April 25, 1925 at the age of sixty-nine.