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  • Level: GCSE
  • Subject: Art
  • Word count: 2286

John Singer Sargent

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John Singer Sargent John Singer Sargent, one of the greatest portrait painters of all time, was also an historian. He did not write about his era. He recorded the wealthy and successful people of his time in paintings that say more about the late Victorian and Edwardian age than words ever could. His portraits of the rich and famous capture the spirit of the time they lived in. His paintings of the women of the era often reflect the world's changing attitudes towards them. His treatment of American sitters expresses the differences between them and his wealthy British subjects. Sargent did not just create likenesses of his subjects. The way that he posed them, the props he used, and even the people he chose to paint tell the viewer a great deal about the world that surrounded him. When he died in 1925 Sargent was considered to be a sort of has-been. In the post-war world, his paintings of the wealthy seemed distasteful to many. But time has proven the value of his work. Today, Sargent's portraits are looked on as a valuable chronicle of the past. John Singer Sargent was born in Florence in 1856. His parents were Americans who had moved to Italy for a temporary stay that became permanent. In fact, Sargent did not see America until he was twenty years old. ...read more.


Besides dealing with the class differences within the world of the rich, Sargent successfully showed its cultural and racial variations. He painted Americans, particularly American women, very differently then the British. Sargent seemed to capture the energy as well as the dynamic personalities of his American sitters. The symmetrical composition of his portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner was unlike any of his other portraits. Elizabeth Prettejohn points out, "...the equally symmetrical gold textile forming a halo behind her, creates what might be called an icon of female power...Her self-contained pose suggests controlled and focused dynamism." (Prettejohn 55) Americans were positioned in natural, relaxed poses rather then stiff conservative ones that were reminiscent of eighteenth century portraiture. The portrait Mrs. Edward L. Davis and her son Livingston Davis shows not only wealth but also a comfortable relationship between a mother and son. This is in direct contrast to the isolating distance between the sitters in the British portrait Mrs. Carl Meyer and her Children. The portrait Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes is a truly American portrait. In it, Mrs. Stokes is dressed in everyday attire. She commands the attention of the viewer by dominating the composition of the portrait. Her husband, while present, is almost hidden in the background shadows. ...read more.


"...over the years critics have contended that his work was too facile, aristocratic and superficial to stand the test of time." (May 1) This could not be further from the truth. Although Sargent's work was realistic it was really quite avant-garde. Unlike the almost photorealistic portraiture of his predecessors, his style was loose and even impressionistic. For example, an oriental rug painted by Sargent might look messy and unclear up close, but at a distance the looseness of his brushstrokes blends together to capture not just the colors and patterns of the rug but also it's depth and texture: "In contrast to the uninflected paint surfaces of French-derived Neoclassical artists, Sargent's glittering surface effects and painterly virtuosity exemplified the English and German tradition of society portraiture. Artists such as Cecilia Beaux...took their cue from Sargent's bravura brushwork and animated surfaces." (Haskell 13) Whatever critics may have said about Sargent, they were all in agreement about his technique...it was masterful. The camera produces the most literal form of representation, but no photos could capture what Sargent did in his portraits. In them he embodied an entire era. "...far from endorsing a status quo, Sargent's portraits dramatized the precarious glamour of an upper class in rapid transition." (Prettejohn 7) They managed to freeze a fleeting moment in time. Because of Sargent we have a much greater understanding of the world of one hundred years ago. His portraits are historical studies in human nature. 1 ...read more.

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