Famous artist John Singer Sargent was a master portraitist and so much more. Learn more about him alongside your kids in this fun free artist lesson!

“You can’t do sketches enough. Sketch everything and keep your curiosity fresh.” ~ John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent (pronunciation) was born January 12, 1856, in Florence, Tuscany. His parents, Fitzwilliam and Mary Sargent, were Americans traveling abroad throughout Europe due to Mary’s poor health. After their second child was born, they decided to take up a permanent residence in Europe, where they lived a comfortable life. Sargent was a rowdy child who preferred to spend most of his time outdoors, and he had a hard time keeping up in school due to the family moving around so often. Despite all this, Sargent was good at drawing. And since his mother was an amateur artist and his father was a medical illustrator, it was only natural that he pursue his talent with art as well.

Check out some of John Singer Sargent most famous paintings

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw

So when he was thirteen, Sargent began taking watercolor lessons. He began to study under the French portraitist Carolus-Duran, and in 1874 he was accepted into the École des Beaux-Arts in France. Sargent preferred to draw mountains and seascapes, but painting portraits was more ideal for getting art commissions to earn a livelihood and had a better chance at being accepted by the Salon.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

And so Sargent starting painting portraits, with his first major work being that of his friend, Fanny Watts, which was complete in 1877. In 1897, he painted a portrait of his teacher, Carolus-Duran, which was well received by critics. Sargent then traveled to Spain, where he spent a great deal of time studying the works of Diego Velázquez.

El Jaleo (Spanish Dancer)

By the time he returned to Paris, John Singer Sargent portraits were in high demand. And by the early 1880’s, his portraits were being featured at the Salon on a regular basis. People were especially taken with how well he captured the positions and personalities of his subjects.

Portrait of Madame X

In 1884 John Singer Sargent exhibited what became his most controversial painting: Portrait of Madame X. Sargent considered it to be his best work, but the painting was considered scandalous and caused an uproar among viewers. This resulted in his number of commissions to drop significantly, and became the final step in convincing him to move to London in 1886, which he had already been considering for a few years. At first the English didn’t like his art style, but paintings like Mrs. Henry White drew attention, and it wasn’t belong before he was commissioned for more portraits.

Mrs. Henry White

John Singer Sargent spent a lot of time painting in plein air (outdoors), and though he is not considered an Impressionist painter, he was inspired by Monet after meeting him in 1885, after which he painted an Impressionist work of Monet and his wife.

Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood

In 1887, Sargent traveled to New York and Boston for the first time as a professional artist, and he painted twenty commissioned portraits. While in Boston, he was honored with his first solo exhibition, where twenty-two of his paintings were shown.

Gondoliers’ Siesta

For the next twenty years, John Singer Sargent painted portraits of notable people, such as Robert Louis Stevenson and U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt. And in 1907, he closed his studio, stating that he was tired and devoting more time for his personal art interest. That same year, he painted his last portrait—a self-portrait. During the last years of his life he continued to travel and painted mostly the outdoors and architecture, before dying in 1925 of heart disease.


Sargent Virtual Tours

This is a video about Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose from Smarthistory: