[1] The Messianic Era: Israel and the Law, c.1903-1909 © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[2] An Interior in Venice, 1899 © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[3] At Torre Galli: Ladies in a Garden © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[4] Grove, Son and Boulton, Gallery IV during the 1926 'Exhibition of Works by the late John S. Sargent RA', silver gelatin print, 1926. © Copyright reserved

[5] Palette owned by John Singer Sargent RA. Given by Miss Julie Heyneman, 1935. Photo: RA © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Artist of the Month - February 2017


John Singer Sargent RA (1856-1925)

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence in 1856, the son of an American doctor. Although he didn't come from an artistic background, his mother was encouraging when he decided to become an artist at the early age of 12. As a child, he travelled widely in Europe and America before studying in Rome, Florence and Paris. He studied under the celebrated portrait painter Carolus-Duran in Paris from 1874 and assisted him with the ceiling decorations for the Louvre. In 1878 Sargent first exhibited at the Paris Salon, where he was awarded a 2nd class medal for his painting Fishing for Oysters at Cancale (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). In 1882 his painting El Jaleo (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) achieved 'picture of the year'. However, two years later his painting Madame X (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art) caused a scandal at the Salon due to the subject's reputation and the provocative air. He sought refuge in England for a summer and finally settled there in 1886 after receiving few commissions in Paris, possibly due to the scandal.

In 1890 Sargent received an important commission to decorate Boston Public Library. His ambitious scheme, representing the development of religious thought, took over 25 years to complete and is one of the most ambitious mural cycles in America. The Messianic Era: Israel and the Law, c.1903-1909 [1] is a study for the first of these murals to be completed by Sargent. The study is very close to the final work, portraying a hooded Jehovah showing a Hebrew scroll of the Law of Israel (personified as a boy) who counts its decrees on his fingers. They are surrounded by guardian angels and the painting is circumscribed by the words spoken in Jewish ritual before the commandments are recited.

Although Sargent believed his most important work to be the Boston mural, he simultaneously began to establish himself as a fashionable portrait painter. He painted a number of scenes of Venice, capturing its daily life both in the streets and inside its historic buildings. The best known is arguably An Interior in Venice, 1899 [2] which demonstrates his debt to Diego Velázquez in its dramatic lighting in a dark interior and in its almost square format. Sargent had first been encouraged to study Velázquez by Carolus-Duran and was struck by his work in Spain in 1879-80. An Interior in Venice conveys an intimate view of subjects Sargent knew well. He had been regularly staying at the Palazzo Barbaro with the Curtis family since 1882 after meeting Ralph Curtis as a fellow student at the atelier of Carolus-Duran. Curtis is depicted with his new wife and his parents. Sargent intended the painting as a gift to his host Ariana Curtis but she rejected it, believing her portrayal unflattering and her son's pose too casual. Instead Sargent gave it to the Royal Academy as his Diploma Work when he was elected a member of the institution in 1900.

By the time Sargent became a member of the Royal Academy he was considered England's greatest portrait painter. He was prolific, completing almost 16 portraits a year. However, this genre began to bore him and he almost abandoned the practice in 1907 saying 'I abhor and adjure them [portraits] and hope never to do another especially of the Upper Classes.' He instead began to focus on architecture, gardens and figures within these settings, often taking holidays to find such subjects. At Torre Galli: Ladies in a Garden [3] was painted in the Autumn of 1910 at the Villa Torre Galli, near Florence, where Sargent was staying with his sister Emily, her friend Eliza Wedgewood, the painter Sir William Blake Richmond and his wife and painters William and Jane de Glehn. It is believed that the sitter for all three figures was Jane de Glehn, supported by the fact they are all in similar dress.

Sargent worked as an official war artist during World War I, completing the painting Gassed, 1919 (Imperial War Museums) for the Ministry of Information. He took a second commission in Boston in 1916, this time for the Museum of Fine Art, which he spent the last years of his life working on. The year after his death in 1925 the Royal Academy of Arts held a large memorial exhibition of his work [4].

John Singer Sargent's At Torre Galli: Ladies in a Garden can be seen on the free tours of the John Madjeski Fine Rooms.