Before Sargent's birth, his father was an eye surgeon at the Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia. After John's older sister died at the age of two, his mother Mary suffered a breakdown, and the couple decided to go abroad to recover. They remained nomadic expatriates for the rest of their lives. Though based in Paris, Sargent's parents moved regularly with the seasons to the sea and the mountain resorts in France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. While Mary was pregnant, they stopped in Florence, Italy because of a cholera epidemic. Sargent was born there in 1856.
Though his father was a patient teacher of basic subjects, young Sargent was a rambunctious child, more interested in outdoor activities than his studies. His mother was quite convinced that traveling around Europe, and visiting museums and churches, would give young Sargent a satisfactory education. Several attempts to have him formally schooled failed, owing mostly to their itinerant life. Sargent's mother was a fine amateur artist and his father was a skilled medical illustrator. Early on, she gave him sketchbooks and encouraged drawing excursions. At thirteen, his mother reported that John "sketches quite nicely, and has a remarkably quick and correct eye. If we could afford to give him really good lessons, he would soon be quite a little artist." At age thirteen, he received some watercolor lessons from Carl Welsch, a German landscape painter. Though his education was far from complete, Sargent grew up to be a highly literate and cosmopolitan young man, accomplished in art, music, and literature.
An attempt to study at the Academy of Florence failed as the school was re-organizing at the time, so after returning to Paris from Florence, Sargent began his art studies with Carolus-Duran. The young French portrait artist, who had a meteoric rise, was noted for his bold technique and modern teaching methods, and his influence would be pivotal to Sargent during the period from 1874-1878.
In 1874, on the first attempt, Sargent passed the rigorous exam required to gain admission to the École des Beaux-Arts, the premier art school in France. He took drawing classes, which included anatomy and perspective, and gained a silver prize. He also spent much time in self-study, drawing in museums and painting in a studio he shared with James Carroll Beckwith. He became both a valuable friend and Sargent's primary connection with the American artists abroad. Sargent also took some lessons from Léon Bonnat.
Carolus-Duran's atelier was progressive, dispensing with the traditional academic approach, which required careful drawing and underpainting, in favor of the 'alla prima' method of working directly on the canvas with a loaded brush, derived from Diego Velázquez. It was an approach that relied on the proper placement of tones of paint. This approach also permitted spontaneous flourishes of color not bound to an under-drawing. It was markedly different from the traditional atelier of Jean Léon Gérôme, where Americans Thomas Eakins and Julian Alden Weir had studied.
Sargent was the star student in short order. Weir met Sargent in 1874 and noted that Sargent was "one of the most talented fellows I have ever come across; his drawings are like the old masters, and his color is equally fine." Sargent's excellent command of French and his superior talent made him both popular and admired. Through his friendship with Paul César Helleu, Sargent would meet giants of the art world, including Degas, Rodin, Monet, and Whistler.
Sargent's early enthusiasm was for landscapes, not portraiture, as evidenced by his voluminous sketches full of mountains, seascapes, and buildings. Carolus-Duran's expertise in portraiture finally influenced Sargent in that direction. Commissions for history paintings were still considered more prestigious, but were much harder to get. Portrait painting, on the other hand, was the best way of promoting an art career, getting exhibited in the Salon, and gaining commissions to earn a livelihood.
In 1879, at age 23, Sargent painted a portrait of teacher Carolus-Duran; the virtuoso effort met with public approval, and announced the direction his mature work would take. Its showing at the Paris Salon was both a tribute to his teacher and an advertisement for portrait commissions. Of Sargent's early work, Henry James wrote that the artist offered "the slightly 'uncanny' spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn."
After leaving Carolus-Duran's atelier, Sargent visited Spain. There he studied the paintings of Velázquez with a passion, absorbing the master's technique, and in his travels gathered ideas for future works. He was entranced with Spanish music and dance. The trip also re-awakened his own talent for music (which was nearly equal to his artistic talent), and which found visual expression in his early masterpiece "El Jaleo" (1882). Music would continue to play a major part in his social life as well, as he was a skillful accompanist of both amateur and professional musicians. Sargent became a strong advocate for modern composers, especially Gabriel Fauré. Trips to Italy provided sketches and ideas for several Venetian street scenes genre paintings, which effectively captured gestures and postures he would find useful in later portraiture.
Upon his return, Sargent quickly received several portrait commissions. His career was launched. He immediately demonstrated the concentration and stamina that enabled him to paint with workman-like steadiness for the next twenty-five years. He filled in the gaps between commissions with many non-commissioned portraits of friends and colleagues. His fine manners, perfect French, and great skill made him a standout among the newer portraitists, and his fame quickly spread. He confidently set high prices and turned down unsatisfactory sitters.
In the early 1880s Sargent regularly exhibited portraits at the Salon, and these were mostly full-length portrayals of women. His best portraits reveal the individuality and personality of the sitters; his most ardent admirers think he is matched in this only by Velázquez, who was one of Sargent's great influences. The Spanish master's spell is apparent in Sargent's "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" (1882), a haunting interior that echoes Velázquez's "Las Meninas".
His most controversial work, "Portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau)" (1884) is now considered one of his best works, and was the artist's personal favorite; he stated in 1915, "I suppose it is the best thing I have done." When unveiled in Paris at the 1884 Salon, it aroused such a negative reaction that it likely prompted Sargent's move to London. Sargent's self-confidence had led him to attempt another risky experiment in portraiture, but this time it unexpectedly back-fired. The painting was not commissioned by her and he pursued her for the opportunity, quite unlike most of his portrait work where clients sought him out. Sargent wrote to a mutual acquaintance: "I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty. ...you might tell her that I am a man of prodigious talent." It took well over a year to complete the painting. The first version of the portrait of Madame Gautreau, with the famously plunging neckline, white-powdered skin, and arrogantly cocked head, featured an off-the-shoulder dress strap which made the overall effect more daring and sensual. Sargent changed the strap to try to dampen the furor, but the damage had been done. French commissions dried up and he told his friend Edmund Gosse in 1885 that he contemplated giving up painting for music or business. Prior to the Madame X scandal of 1884, Sargent had painted exotic beauties, but the earlier pictures had not been intended for broad public reception. Sargent kept the painting prominently displayed in his London studio until he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916, a few months after Gautreau's death.
Before arriving in England, Sargent began sending paintings for exhibition at the Royal Academy. These included the portraits of "Dr. Pozzi at Home" (1881), a flamboyant essay in red and his first full-length male portrait, and the more traditional "Mrs. Henry White" (1883). The ensuing portrait commissions encouraged Sargent to complete his move to London in 1886. Notwithstanding the Madame X scandal, he had considered moving to London as early as 1882; he had been urged to do so repeatedly by his new friend, the novelist Henry James. In retrospect his transfer to London may be seen to have been inevitable.
English critics were not warm at first, faulting Sargent for his "clever" "Frenchified" handling of paint. With help from Mrs. White, however, Sargent soon gained the admiration of English patrons and critics. Henry James also gave the artist "a push to the best of my ability."
Sargent spent much time painting outdoors in the English countryside when not in his studio. On a visit to Monet at Giverny in 1885, Sargent painted one of his most Impressionistic portraits, of Monet at work painting outdoors with his new bride nearby. Sargent is usually not thought of as an Impressionist painter, but he sometimes used impressionistic techniques to great effect. His "Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood" is rendered in his own version of the impressionist style. In the 1880s, he attended the Impressionist exhibitions and he began to paint outdoors in the plein-air manner after that visit to Monet. Sargent purchased four Monet works for his personal collection during that time.
Sargent was similarly inspired to do a portrait of his artist friend Paul César Helleu, also painting outdoors with his wife by his side: "Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife" (1889). A photograph very similar to the painting suggests that Sargent occasionally used photography as an aid to composition. Through Helleu, Sargent met and painted the famed French sculptor Auguste Rodin in 1884, a rather somber portrait reminiscent of works by Thomas Eakins. Though the British critics classified Sargent in the Impressionist camp, the French Impressionists thought otherwise. As Monet later stated, "He is not an Impressionist in the sense that we use the word, he is too much under the influence of Carolus-Duran."
Sargent's first major success at the Royal Academy came in 1887, with the enthusiastic response to "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose", a large piece, painted on site, of two young girls lighting lanterns in an English garden in Broadway in the Cotswolds. The painting was immediately purchased by the Tate Gallery.
His first trip to New York and Boston as a professional artist in 1887-88 produced over twenty important commissions, including portraits of Isabella Stewart Gardner, the famed Boston art patron. His portrait of Mrs. Adrian Iselin, wife of a New York businessman, revealed her character in one of his most insightful works. In Boston, Sargent was honored with his first solo exhibition, which presented twenty-two of his paintings.
Back in London, Sargent was quickly busy again. His working methods were by then well-established, following many of the steps employed by other master portrait painters before him. After securing a commission through negotiations which he carried out, Sargent would visit the client's home to see where the painting was to hang. He would often review a client's wardrobe to pick suitable attire. Some portraits were done in the client's home, but more often in his studio, which was well-stocked with furniture and background materials he chose for proper effect. He usually required eight to ten sittings from his clients, though he would try to capture the face in one sitting. He usually kept up pleasant conversation and sometimes he would take a break and play the piano for his sitter. Sargent seldom used pencil or oil sketches, and instead lay down oil paint directly. Finally, he would select an appropriate frame.
Sargent had no assistants; he handled all the tasks, such as preparing his canvases, varnishing the painting, arranging for photography, shipping, and documentation. He commanded about $5,000 per portrait, or about $130,000 in current dollars. Some American clients traveled to London at their own expense to have Sargent paint their portrait.
Around 1890, Sargent painted two daring non-commissioned portraits as show pieces, one of actress Ellen Terry as Lady MacBeth and one of the popular Spanish dancer La Carmecita. Sargent was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, and was made a full member three years later. In the 1890s, he averaged fourteen portrait commissions per year. As a portrait painter in the grand manner, Sargent had unmatched success; he portrayed subjects who were at once ennobled and often possessed of nervous energy. Although Sargent was an American expatriate, he returned to the United States many times, often to answer the demand for commissioned portraits. Sargent painted a series of three portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson. The second, "Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife" (1885), was one of his best known. He also completed portraits of two U.S. presidents: Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
Asher Wertheimer, a wealthy Jewish art dealer living in London, commissioned from Sargent a series of a dozen portraits of his family, the artist's largest commission from a single patron. The paintings reveal a pleasant familiarity between the artist and his subjects. Wertheimer bequeathed most of the paintings to the National Gallery. Many of his most important works are in museums in the United States.
By 1900, Sargent was at the height of his fame. Cartoonist Max Beerbohm completed one of his seventeen caricatures of Sargent, making well-known to the public the artist's paunchy physique. Though only in his forties, Sargent began to travel more and to devote relatively less time to portrait painting. His "An Interior in Venice" (1900), a portrait of four members of the Curtis family in their elegant palatial home, Palazzo Barbaro, was a resounding success. But, Whistler did not approve of the looseness of Sargent's brushwork, which he summed up as "smudge everywhere." Between 1900 and 1907, Sargent continued his high productivity, which included, in addition to dozens of oil portraits, hundreds of portrait drawings at about $400 each.
In 1906, Sargent painted his modest and serious self-portrait for the celebrated self-portrait collection of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. One year later, at the age of fifty-one, Sargent officially closed his studio. Relieved, he stated: "Painting a portrait would be quite amusing if one were not forced to talk while working… What a nuisance having to entertain the sitter and to look happy when one feels wretched."
Sargent's fame was still considerable and museums eagerly bought his works. That year he declined a knighthood and decided instead to keep his American citizenship. From 1907 on, Sargent largely forsook portrait painting and focused on landscapes in his later years. He made numerous visits to the United States in the last decade of his life, including a stay of two full years from 1915-1917.
By the time Sargent finished his portrait of John D. Rockefeller in 1917, most critics began to consign him to the masters of the past. Modernists treated him more harshly, considering him completely out of touch with the reality of American life and with emerging artistic trends including Cubism and Futurism. Sargent quietly accepted the criticism, but refused to alter his negative opinions of modern art. He retorted, "Ingres, Raphael and El Greco, these are now my admirations, these are what I like."
During Sargent's long career, he painted more than 2,000 watercolors, roving from the English countryside to Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, the Middle East, Montana, Maine, and Florida. Each destination offered pictorial stimulation and treasure. Even at his leisure, in escaping the pressures of the portrait studio, he painted with restless intensity, often painting from morning until night. His hundreds of watercolors of Venice are especially notable, many done from the perspective of a gondola. His colors were sometimes extremely vivid and as one reviewer noted, "Everything is given with the intensity of a dream." In the Middle East and North Africa Sargent painted Bedouins, goatherds, and fisherman. In the last decade of his life, he produced many watercolors in Maine, Florida, and in the American West, of fauna, flora, and native peoples.
All of Sargent's murals are to be found in the Boston/Cambridge area. They are in the Boston Public Library, the Museum of Fine Arts, and Harvard's Widener Library. Sargent's largest scale works are the mural decorations that grace the Boston Public Library depicting the history of religion and the gods of polytheism.
Upon his return to England in 1918 after a visit to the United States, Sargent was commissioned as a war artist by the British Ministry of Information. In his large painting "Gassed" (1918) and in many watercolors, he depicted scenes from the Great War.
In 1922 Sargent co-founded New York City's Grand Central Art Galleries. He actively participated in the Grand Central Art Galleries and their academy, the Grand Central School of Art, until his death in 1925.
Despite a long period of critical disfavor, Sargent's popularity has increased steadily since the 1950s. Sargent has been the subject of large-scale exhibitions in major museums, including a retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1986, and a 1999 "blockbuster" traveling show that exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the National Gallery of Art Washington, and the National Gallery, London.
In 1986, Andy Warhol commented that Sargent "made everybody look glamorous. Taller. Thinner. But they all have mood, every one of them has a different mood."
John Singer Sargent is interred in Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, Surrey.