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John Singer Sargent

January 12, 1856 - April 14, 1925


Born in Florence, Italy to American parents, John Singer Sargent grew up in Europe and first visited the United States in 1876 when he was 20, he never lived in the States. Even so, he always considered himself to be an American. Because his nomadic family moved from city to city across Europe when he was a child, his education was scattered. They visited museums where they would sketch and he took occasional classes with artists. In 1874, when he was 18, they moved to Paris so that he could have a more complete art education. His first entry to the Paris Salon, a portrait of a friend, was accepted by this influential juried exhibition. He quickly became famous for his exceptional portrait paintings which were considered “realistic,” starkly separating him from many of his fellow artists who created idealized versions of their subjects. In 1884, his painting Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), created a scandal at the Salon, as one strap of her gown was painted as if it had slipped from her shoulder. Even though he repainted the jeweled strap so it was properly positioned, the outcry brought his career in France to a halt. Perhaps in response, he moved to London. He sold this masterpiece to the Met in 1916, and considered it his best work.

Sargent’s reputation was quickly established in the United States and England with paintings such as Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, and he received many commissions from well-off families, celebrities, and influential people, such as actress Dame Ellen Terry and American President Roosevelt. His great friend Isabella Stewart Gardner, for whom he had painted another scandalous portrait, created an apartment and studio for him in her palatial house, recently opened as a museum, to use whenever he was in Boston. Sargent is considered to have been the museum’s first artist-in-residence.

When Sargent’s mother died, he stopped doing portraits except for special friends. He had always disliked painting them but they had given him a very substantial income and the luxury of travel. He  devoted himself to watercolors, which he loved, and to murals, which he considered  to be the highest form of art, for the young Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Harvard’s Widener Library, and the Boston Public Library. These were painted on canvas in London and shipped to the U.S. for installation. He died in his sleep at the age of 65 the night after packing up the last panels for MFA Boston.

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