Painter. A cosmopolitan expatriate, internationally celebrated, he exploited remarkable technical facility in an extraordinarily large body of varied work. Although famed for grand-manner portraits, he also painted notable landscapes and genre scenes. Surpassed as a watercolorist by few artists, he brilliantly registered fresh visual experience in an audaciously free and coloristic style related to contemporary impressionism. In his mid-thirties he first tackled the mural commissions that subsequently absorbed much of his creative effort. These center on invented, allegorical subjects featuring ideal figures. Born to American parents in Florence, Sargent was educated by tutors, with occasional stints in private schools, as his parents restlessly moved around Europe. His mother, an amateur but avid watercolorist, provided his earliest artistic instruction. He studied for a year at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence before enrolling in 1874 at Paris's École des Beaux Arts, where for three years he absorbed the academic tradition. Concurrently and more importantly, he worked with Émile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, a fashionable portraitist and muralist who encouraged him to paint from observation in a fluent and unfussy style. At the age of twenty, Sargent made the first of many Atlantic crossings. He spent more than four months taking in Philadelphia's Centennial Exhibition, traveling in the Northeast, and visiting Montreal, Niagara Falls, and Chicago. By 1878, when he exhibited the vivid Oyster Gatherers of Cancale (Corcoran Gallery) in Paris, he had mastered a fluid naturalism that captures effects of summer sunlight on the Breton shore. Although already indebted to impressionism, Sargent continued to find in the old masters, particularly Velázquez and Frans Hals, inspiration for his painterly approach. An atmospheric rendering of a dancer in a Spanish cafe, El Jaleo (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, 1882) captures effects of light and movement within a darkened interior. In addition to painting such subject pictures, during these years Sargent also began his career as a portraitist, demonstrating an extraordinary ability to capture individual likeness with lively flair and insight into personality. Four Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1882) depicts the little girls in a family interior dominated by two enormous Chinese vases. In its asymmetrical design, attentiveness to Asian decor, and optical directness, it signals his interests in japonisme, as well as the work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Manet, and Degas. A flamboyant portrait exhibited in 1884 negatively affected Sargent's rising reputation in Paris. Depicting Madame Pierre Gautreau but exhibited as Madame X (Metropolitan Museum, 1883–84), the provocative image stimulated intense criticism. The subject's haughty demeanor, her unconventional pose with face in profile, the unnatural pallor of her dramatically bared arms and shoulders, and the composition's uningratiating spareness offended many viewers.
Career in jeopardy, Sargent heeded the encouragement of his friend Henry James to move to England. During the second of two extended visits to England in 1884 and 1885, preceding his permanent relocation in 1886, Sargent worked at Broadway, in the Cotswolds, at the invitation of Edward Austin Abbey, one of a number of Americans who congregated in the village. Painted there, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (Tate Britain, London, 1885–86) established Sargent's success in England. A large work picturing two white-frocked girls lighting Japanese lanterns as dusk falls on a flower-filled garden, it remains among Sargent's most decorative and appealing works. Like most of the artist's major works, although fresh and informal it represents a highly premeditated performance, extensively reworked during two seasons. Nevertheless, because it seemed “unfinished,” English contemporaries regarded the work as impressionist. In fact, however, his work moved decisively toward impressionism's broken colors and fleeting effects only in the later 1880s, and he never fully adopted the French group's methods. He had known Monet for several years before they spent time together in Paris and Giverny in 1887. Painted in a style deeply responsive to the French artist's, Sargent's Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of a Wood (Tate Britain, London, 1887–89) documents their shared plein air activity and anticipates Sargent's extensive engagement with outdoor work. Concurrently, during the 1880s, in the United States as in England, Sargent continued to develop as a portrait painter. By the time he withdrew from this activity in 1907 (though he continued to produce occasional examples), he had entirely dominated the practice in both countries for more than a decade. Unsympathetic observers have accused Sargent of squandering his talent on the vanities of the rich. In his society portraits he was not above flattery, but he almost single-handedly modernized a stagnating genre. In his hands, the painterly tradition of van Dyke, Gainsborough, and Joshua Reynolds received a fresh infusion of vitality, freedom, and up-to-date glamour. The compelling originality of many individual likenesses, their striking evocation of personality, and his unfailingly nimble brushwork demonstrate the artist's serious intentions and his grasp of individuality in a new age. For more than thirty years, Sargent rendered such penetrating characterizations as the wistfully intelligent Mrs. Charles Gifford Dyer (Art Institute of Chicago, 1880) or wry and worldly Henry James (National Portrait Gallery, London, 1913). In other works, aristocratic style competes with character. In one of a series of complex group portraits completed around the turn of the century, the attractive, wealthy, married, and titled Wyndham Sisters (Metropolitan Museum, 1900) revel in opulence, but they nevertheless embody in their sensuality and alertness the spirited modernity of their cultured social milieu. While portraits absorbed most of his studio time, Sargent took advantage of his itinerant ways to paint landscapes and other picturesque subjects during summer excursions from London. Until World War I permanently interrupted his habits, he regularly visited the Continent, particularly the Alps and Italy, but also explored North Africa, the Near East, and the United States. After about 1900 he usually employed watercolor for his travel scenes, recording lush scenery, Venetian architecture, traveling companions at leisure, sometimes posed in exotic costumes, and other visually stimulating imagery. Seemingly holiday pictures that might have been painted as a form of relaxation, in fact the artist exhibited and sold these watercolors with care, creating a market for them and evidently considering them an important part of his artistic legacy. His fluid and lyrical technique, at once gorgeous and economical, often flourishes passages of nearly abstract brushwork.