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John Singer Sargent was an Italian-born American painter whose portraits of the wealthy and privileged provide an enduring image of Edwardian-age society.
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In 1884, though, his reputation took a turn for the worse, with the exhibition of his work Madame X. Because it defied many of the accepted standards of the day, and was slightly risqué in its portrayal of a woman in a low-cut, nearly sleeveless dress, it turned many of his admirers against him. The mother of the woman who had sat for the portrait, Madame Gautreau (who was actually American), even asked Sargent to remove it. Today,
the painting is one of his most celebrated and famous.
Rather than stay in a city in which public opinion had turned against him, Sargent left Paris and began spending much of his time in England, making it his permanent home in 1886. The country he had adopted had not quite adopted him, though; the English were reluctant to sit for Sargent's portraits because of the scandal of Madame X. Not wanting their own portraits to turn out the same way, they refrained from giving him commissions.
Sargent was not discouraged. On a pair of trips to the United States in 1887 and 1890, he found that Americans were not averse to being painted by him, and many members of American high society sat for his portraits. He often painted his subjects as if they were caught in the middle of motion, with faces both highly individualized and expressive.
The turning point for Sargent's career in England came when he showed his Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (painted 1885-86) at the London Royal Academy. The piece, undeniably one of Sargent's masterpieces, incorporated Victorian themes and a calculated impressionist influence that depicted two girls lighting lanterns among flowers in spring. The English recognized the painting's greatness, and members of the elite were soon lining up to commission their own likenesses.
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose was important, too, as an example the impact that impressionism had had on Sargent's works. He had become acquainted with and learned from both Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, masters of French impressionism. Sargent, like Monet, was particularly fascinated with light, and became highly skilled at portraying it. However, in contrast to the French painters' work, Sargent's paintings remained fairly literal, retaining crisp forms and not dissolving entirely into streaks of color.
Although his portraits were highly praised, Sargent eventually grew tired of painting them — they took up a large amount of his time, and there seemed to be no end to his new commissions. Sargent backed away from the portrait business between 1907 and 1910 to leave himself time to focus on other projects, in particular a set of murals for the Boston Public Library. The coming of World War I also changed Sargent's subject matter, for a time. Visiting the Western Front at the request of the British government, which had asked him to paint a scene commemorating the war, Sargent created Gassed, an appropriately dark work, which depicted soldiers enduring the deplorable conditions that marked life in the Great War.
As he left portraiture behind, Sargent increasingly turned to watercolor, especially after 1903. His works in the medium were praised, so much so that he managed to make a name for himself as a watercolorist in addition to a painter.
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