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Beyond Madame X: Portraits by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children, 1896, Tate Britain, London, UK. Detail.

Artists' Stories

Beyond Madame X: Portraits by John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent is one of art history’s most famous portrait painters. He was born in Italy to American parents and received his formal artistic training in Paris, where he quickly became successful at the all-important annual Salon. Sargent soon began to receive commissions to paint socially important men, women, and families – first in France and later on in England and America. Additionally, he made oil and watercolor sketches of the people and places he encountered on his extensive worldwide travels.

John Singer Sargent Self-Portrat Portraits by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent, Self-Portrait, 1906, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
John Singer Sargent, Lady Evelyn Cavendish Portraits by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent, Lady Evelyn Cavendish, 1902, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, UK.

A certain style

The glamorous portraits by John Singer Sargent are popular and easily recognizable today. His subjects look elegant and romantic thanks to his soft brushwork and his skill at depicting the beautiful fabrics that adorn his fashionable subjects. His works often have a subtle, yet powerful, psychological component to them. They always manage to convey a sense of the person beyond the painting. 

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit by John Singer Sargent Portraits by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA.

In his many family portraits, he frequently used unusual compositions to hint at the relationships within the family. In all things, he was a master at striking a balance between innovation and tradition that satisfied his clients and the art establishment. His style sometimes seems to reflect the attitude of the sitter, with conservative subjects receiving the most conventional treatments.

John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children Portraits by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children, 1896, Tate Britain, London, UK.

Not just family portraits

The steady stream of commissions from prominent families formed the basis of Sargent’s success, but he also painted non-commissioned images of turn-of-the-century society’s most fascinating characters. He actively sought out certain socialites, actresses, singers, and other celebrities and asked them to sit for a portrait.

Madame X by John Singer Sargent Portraits by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent, Madame X, 1888, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.
Read more about this painting here.

One such case was his famous Madame X, the elegant-but-aloof American-Parisian socialite named Amelie Gautreau. The work is widely admired today as a symbol of turn-of-the-century elegance and high society. However, it was very controversial in its time for being overly suggestive and unflattering to its subject. This was Sargent’s only work to receive such criticism, which has only enhanced his lasting fame today. It is now an icon of style that eclipses the scores of other beautiful ladies and handsome men he painted during his career.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent Portraits by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892, The National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.

An underrated favorite

There’s no question that Madame X is a classic, but my favorite Sargent painting is of Scottish noblewoman Lady Gertrude Agnew of Lochnaw. In her portrait, Lady Agnew wears a pale purple dress with a big sash and sits in a floral chair with an Asian hanging on the wall behind her. She looks directly at the viewer. In many ways, she’s so demure. Her dress is modest and frilly, her dark hair is simply styled, and her posture is casual without being too relaxed. However, the way that she looks at her audience is strong and quietly assertive, and her facial expression is neutral, but far from passive. Unlike the brazen Madame X who looks away from the viewer, Lady Agnew shows her own confidence by looking directly at us. That’s what I find so compelling about this painting.

The Wyndham Sisters by John Singer Sargent Portraits by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent, The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant, 1899, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.

We encourage you to look at portraits by John Singer Sargent reconstructed in photographs with Nicole Kidman!

Sir Frank Swettenham by John Singer Sargent Portraits by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent, Sir Frank Swettenham, 1904, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK.

Works referenced:

  • Davis, Deborah. Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2003.
  • Ormond, Richard & Elaine Kilmurray. Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends. New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2015.
  • Trumble, Angus. “The Soldier, the King, and the Proconsul: an Edwardian Processional” in Trumble, Angus & Andrea Wolk Rager eds. Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2013. P. 11-37.
  • “Catalogue” in Trumble, Angus & Andrea Wolk Rage eds. Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2013. P. 161-162.
  • “Past Exhibition: Lady Agnew of Lochnaw”. New York: Frick Collection, 2014. Accessed November 1, 2017.
Ada Rehan by John Singer Sargent Portraits by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent, Ada Rehan, 1894–5, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.


Discover more artworks by John Singer Sargent:

Alexandra believes that enjoying the art of the past is the closest she can get to time travel, only much safer. When she’s not being an art historian, she can usually be found ice skating and dancing. Visit her at ascholarlyskater.com.

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