John Singer Sargent: A Portrait in Paintings

John Singer Sargent was one of the most celebrated painters of his generation, perhaps best known for his portraiture, for which he received both commercial and critical acclaim, but also provoked controversy at times. The paintings that depict Sargent’s fellow artists and his friends are the subject of an exciting new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, opening 12 February 2015. Since 1998 Yale have published a series of books that record the complete paintings of Sargent, with the penultimate volume released in 2014. Each book features full colour images accompanied by provenance and exhibition history, as well as previously unpublished material. Richard Ormond, Sargent’s great nephew, is both curator of the NPG show and co-author of Yale’s John Singer Sargent Catalogue Raisonné project.

John Singer Sargent - The Complete PaintingsSome highlights from The Complete Paintings

The first volume of the catalogue raisonné follows the early career of Sargent, cataloguing the portraits that the artist produced from 1874 to 1887, whilst he travelled between Paris, England and America. It was during this period that Sargent painted one of his most famous works, exhibited under the title Madame X. The portrait of Madame Gautreau shocked its French audience when initially shown at the Salon of 1884, but is now heralded as a prime example of decadent modernism.

Between 1889 and 1900 Sargent produced over 150 portraits and portrait sketches that can be found in Volume 2 of The Complete Paintings. By the end of this short period Sargent was being well received commercially and critically both sides of the Atlantic. The French sculptor Auguste Rodin went as far to call him the ‘van Dyck of our times’. This volume places Sargent within the wider context of the portraiture genre, comparing his work to those produced by his contemporaries and the greats, echoing the comments of Rodin.

The final volume on portraiture follows the work produced by Sargent up until his death in 1925. After developing an interest in other genres – covered in subsequent volumes – Sargent announced that he was giving up portrait painting, though he continued to paint members of his family and friends. He also made exceptions for well-known sitters including J. D. Rockerfeller in 1917. Sargent also produced portraits as charcoal sketches, which were more time efficient and could be completed in a single sitting.

Between 1874 and 1882 Sargent produced over 200 landscapes, architectural studies, seascapes and Old Master studies. During this period immense variety can be seen in the work of Sargent. The artist made summer trips to Brittany, Capri, Spain, Venice and Switzerland, whilst producing work both in the studio and en plein air in the manner of the French Impressionists.


Sargent continued to work in close parallel with the Impressionists between 1883 and 1899, a period in which his portraiture enjoyed much success. Volume 5 includes previously unpublished correspondence between the artist and Claude Monet. In 1887 Sargent exhibited the piece Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (Tate), at the Royal Academy to much acclaim. The artist continued to travel during this period, this time to the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa where he sought inspiration for his mural commission at the Boston Public Library.

As with many artists who came before and after, Venice proved to be an important focal point in Sargent’s oeuvre. He travelled to the city frequently between 1898 and 1913, depicting the magnificent Renaissance and Baroque architecture as well as daily Venetian life. Sargent’s rendering of the Italian light and his working technique demonstrate the long lasting impact that his friendship with Monet had on his art.

In 1906 Sargent exhibited his first landscape painting at the Royal Academy, The Mountains of Moab. During this period Sargent spent his summers in the Alps producing oil painting and watercolours of the surrounding landscape, brought to vivid life through light and colour. The work from this period also demonstrates considerable influence from Renaissance and Mannerist artists, who he was undoubtedly exposed to during his trips to Venice and Spain.

Volume 9 of the catalogue raisonné, to be published in Spring 2016, will cover Sargent’s years as an official War Artist, including the remarkable studies made after his visit to the battlefields in preparation for his great work Gassed (IWM).

Explore Yale’s full range of Sargent titles here.

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