John Singer Sargent – American Portraits Master

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) is undoubtedly one of the greatest portrait artists of all time. His beautiful paintings live on today, much after he is long gone, as a symbol of how an artist can capture the true essence of personality and bring to life an individual on the sheets of canvas!

Born in Italy to American parents, he studied art in Paris, receiving numerous commissions to create the portraits of important men, women, and families in a style that only he could have mastered. Having spent much time in France, Sargent moved to England and then to America, besides traveling worldwide and capturing the beauty of all that inspired him. 

But he wasn’t just happy working his commissions and spent much of his life painting the spectacular models who would sit for him. These non-commissioned portraits of socialites, singers, actresses, and celebrities make for splendid character sketches of the glamorous people that lived at the turn of the century.  

A Master of Portraits

The portraits of John Singer Sargent are teeming with both subtle and powerful psychological components that immaculately convey a strong sense of the individual well beyond the painting. While laying importance on their facial features and expressions, he beautifully detailed the luxurious fabrics that adorned his fashionable subjects.

His paintings often reflect the attitude of the sitter, the conservative subjects getting a more conservative treatment. In his family portraits, we often find unusual compositions reflecting the relationships between the family members. He displays a mix of innovation and tradition that seemed to go well with his patrons and still stands out today. 

Early Rise to Fame 

Unlike many great artists who grew in influence posthumously or died unknown and impoverished, John Singer Sargent grew very successful at an early age. Of his early works, Henry James wrote that the artist offered the ‘the slightly uncanny spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn.”

He painted a portrait of his teacher, the American painter Carolus-Duran in 1879 at the early age of 23 years. This painting soon won accolades, granting him a position in the Paris Salon and, along with it, numerous commissions, and from there, his career only grew in success. 

Great Influences 

At a time when the art world was focused on Cubism and Fauvism, Sargent developed his own form of realism. He was greatly influenced by Velazquez, Van Dyke, and Gainsborough. The influence of the master Velazquez is apparent in many of his works, especially his painting of The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882). 

He also spent much time with the great artist Claude Monet and, learning from him, experimented with Impressionist techniques in landscape paintings like Washerwomen (1880) and Landscape at Broadway (1885).

Some Notable Works

John Singer Sargent painted portraits of many great personalities, including President Roosevelt and J.D. Rockefeller. From the socialites of Paris to noble families of Europe and businessmen of America, his collection of portraits truly captures the essence of the influential people of his times. 

Portrait of Madame X

One of the most famous works of John Singer Sargent is the Portrait of Madame X. This painting of the elegant-but-aloof American- Parisian socialite named Amelie Gautreau won him many admirers but also a huge amount of criticism. 

When it was unveiled at the Paris Salon in 1884, it was considered overly suggestive and unflattering to its subject leading to a scandal in Parisian high society. The mother of Gautreau even accused Sargent of ruining her daughter’s reputation through this artwork. To escape the scandal, Sargent moved to England, taking up many commissions in British society, Madame X however remaining his personal favorite.

Portrait of Lady Agnew

The portrait of the Scottish noblewoman Lady Gertrude Agnew of Lochnaw is beyond beautiful. Modestly dressed in a pale purple outfit and sitting on a floral chair, her posture is casual without being too relaxed. 

She looks very demure, and yet the way she looks straight at the audience is strong and assertive. Her facial expression is neutral but far from being passive, making this portrait highly appealing and a jewel of Sargent’s work. 

Portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt

In 1903, John Singer Sargent was invited to live for one week at the White House by President Roosevelt with a commission to paint his portrait. It is said that Sargent spent hours walking up and down the White House looking for ‘the perfect light’, which thoroughly annoyed the President. And with his busy schedule, the President would hardly sit for half an hour after his lunch with the artist. 

At the end of one week, the oil on canvas masterpiece was complete and though Sargent was expecting that the President would not like this hurried work, he completely adored it and wrote to his son saying that he “likes this painting enormously” and praised the portrait for the rest of life.


Today, the portraits painted by John Singer Sargent hang in the best galleries around the world. Art lovers flock from every nook and corner to get a glimpse of them and stare at them with awe and marvel at the talent of this artist. One can even get his paintings reproduced and adorn their homes with these masterpieces to enjoy them at leisure.