Artist Spotlight: John Singer Sargent

. . .

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

John Singer Sargent (January 12, 1856 – April 14, 1925) was an American portrait painter who portrayed the luxury of the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century society. During his prolific career, he created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as numerous sketches and charcoal drawings.

His work was characterized by ability, especially his skill in drawing with a brush. His work garnered great admiration as well as criticism. Sargent traveled to Spain, where he studied the work of Velázquez, who he admired. Like Velázquez, Sargent’s portraits reveal the individuality and personality of the sitters.

His parents were American expatriates, living in Europe, and took early notice of his talent. He studied first with French portrait artist Carolus-Duran, and in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts.   Sargent was accomplished in art, music literature and languages and excellent command of French and his artistic talent made him popular with his clients.

Sargent would associate with other artists of the era including Degas, Rodin, Monet, and Whistler. American artist Julian Alden Weir met Sargent in 1874 and said 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.” Not all critics and artists were as complementary as Weir. Camille Pissarro wrote “he is not an enthusiast but rather an adroit performer.”


In the 1890s, he was commissioned an average of 14 times per year, earning about $5,000 per portrait, roughly 130,000 in today’s dollars. He worked alone, handling canvass preparation, shipping, and documentation and entertaining his clients, in addition to painting. While he occasionally traveled to the United States to paint his clients, including U.S. presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, frequently wealthy Americans traveled to London, where he resided, for the honor of sitting for him.

Sargent’s early enthusiasm was for landscapes, not portraiture. However, portrait painting, rather than landscapes, was a more stable to earn a living, as there were more demand. Later in life he focused on again on landscapes and painting en plein air.

Sargent has recently been the subject of large-scale exhibitions in major museums, including at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the National Gallery of Art Washington, and the National Gallery, London.

Portrait of John Singer Sargent by Heather Hoh.

Each week on the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design blog, a different profile of an artist is posted. These are taken from a classroom project where the illustration and fine art students create “Artist Trading Cards,” first researching the facts about and the style of a selected artist, then making a trading card that captures the spirit of the artist.