Sunday, 5 July 2009


“A portrait is a picture of a person with something wrong with the mouth.” - John Singer Sargent

Today for Art Sunday, John Singer Sargent (born in Florence, 12 Jan 1856; died in London, 25 April 1925). He was and American painter and draughtsman, active in England. Sargent was the most fashionable portrait painter working in England and the USA in the late 19th century. He was brought up by expatriate American parents in an environment of restless travel and an insulated family life. On both sides of the Atlantic the famous Sargent was sought after to paint portraits of American businessmen and financiers, English manufacturers and their wives, fashionable Edwardian aristocrats, and the English gentry. The international art community admired his style of seemingly effortless, bravura brushwork and dashing likenesses.

Best known is his portrait “Madame X” (Madame Gautreau, one of the most elegant and fashion-conscious beauties of Parisian society), which created a scandal at the 1884 Salon; critics found it eccentric and erotic, and the sitter's mother claimed it made her daughter a laughingstock. Discouraged, he moved permanently to London, though he often visited the U.S. He tired of portrait requests and increasingly turned his attention to painting his sisters Emily Sargent and Violet Ormond and Violet's family, and, more and more, holiday subjects in watercolor and oil.

Sargent was cosmopolitan in outlook, a linguist, a fine pianist and an avid reader of the classics. The spirit of self-sufficiency and isolation, both physical and emotional, remained with him all his life. He never married, grew wary of emotional entanglements and remained closest to his sisters, especially the eldest, Emily.

Here is his “Nonchaloir” (Repose), of 1911. It is 64 x 76 cm, oil on canvas and exhibitied at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The painting is characteristic of Sargent in that the style is relaxed and effortless and manages with a limited palette and easy fluid strokes to evoke the essence of “rest”. The woman in Repose is Sargent’s niece, Rose-Marie Ormond Michel. The portrait is informal and the sitter is depicted as a languid, anonymous figure absorbed in poetic reverie. The consummate luxury and nonchalance is documenting the end of an era. The lingering aura of fin-de-siècle gentility would soon be shattered by massive political and social upheaval in the early twentieth century.


  1. Thanks for the info. I have always enjoyed looking at this elegant painter's work

  2. This is gorgeous! I also like "Madame X" and didn't know it was controversal at the time.

  3. Love the history behind it too - interesting how the same thing can be considered beautiful or worthy of ridicule, scandalous or demure, depending on the period and the contemporary culture.

    Thank you also for your email, Nicholas, and for all your really helpful information about migraines - very much appreciated - I just say thanks here because I have to allow time to reply to emails these days!