From the Industrial Revolution to World War I, C. 1850–1914


Was John Singer Sargent an Impressionist?

Not exactly. John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) was a supporter of Impressionism and dabbled in the movement, but his interest in light did not extend all the way to completely dissolving any forms in his work, as was common with the Impressionists. Sargent was born in Florence to wealthy American parents, but spent the majority of his career painting portraits for members of high society in Britain and France. He was highly successful as a portraitist and tended towards Realism. He was roundly criticized, during his lifetime and after, for making superficial art. In 1929, the art critic Roger Fry called Sargent “undistinguished as an illustrator and non-existent as an artist” (as quoted in “Sargent, John”). However, since the 1970s his reputation has been on the rise. Scholars now note Sargent’s ability to emphasize psychological drama in works such as Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882), which recalls the sophistication of Velazquez’s Las Meninas. His most famous portrait, Madame X (1883–1884), caused a scandal for its twisted pose and sexuality. While at the time it was a disappointment, it is now acclaimed for its juxtaposition of the pale, porcelain skin of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), with the soft, velvety texture of her skintight black dress. In his later years working in Boston, Sargent painted mostly watercolors, preferring to distance himself from portraiture. Though he was not really an Impressionist, Sargent is now considered an innovative nineteenth-century artist who occasionally painted with an Impressionist palette.


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