10 Stunning Paintings by John Singer Sargent
A hugely popular artist in the late 19th century, John Singer Sargent made about 900 oil paintings and over 2000 watercolors during his career and established himself as the most fashionable painter on both sides of the Atlantic ocean.
Although born to American parents, he spent most of his life in Europe. He enjoyed international success and fame throughout his career, especially for his portraits. As we can see from his paintings, Sargent had an impressive grasp on technical skills—this ability drew some criticism for its apparent “superficiality” in his later years. In the words of the artist, “It is certain that at certain times talent entirely overcomes thought or poetry.” However, when exploring John Singer Sargent most famous paintings, you’ll find beautiful nuance and emotion in addition to obvious formal painting abilities.
His commissions followed the grand manner of portraiture—which are portraits started during the High Renaissance that use visual metaphors to emphasize nobility and wealth. On the other hand, more informal paintings by John Singer Sargent were landscapes paintings and studies done in a looser Impressionist style. Later in life, he enjoyed doing mural paintings and working outside, or en plein air in the company of his friend, the famous Impressionist painter Claude Monet.
Let’s explore a bit more about the artist himself before diving into some of the most well-known paintings by John Singer Sargent.
A Brief Biography before describing the Paintings by John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent was born in Florence in 1856 to American parents. He grew up traveling around Eruope with his family, spoke four languages, and enjoyed a cosmopolitan upbringing. Realizing at a young age that he hoped to become an artist, he went on to study painting in some of the best schools in Europe, including the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Throughout the 1880s, he regularly participated in the Paris Salon—most often, his works were full-length portraits of women, which generally received positively.
Sargent’s best portraits expertly reveal the individuality and personality of his sitters. This ability set him apart from others portrait painters of his time—he made the sitter shine on the canvas while capturing the essence of their being. Actually, in some instances, this led to his sitters to be shocked or upset with the final work.
However, one of the earliest notable events in the career of the artist is a scandal he caused at the 1884 Paris Salon because of his painting Portrait of Madame X (we’ll dive specifically into that painting below). Viewers immediately saw it as overly erotic and inappropriate. Because of this scandal, Sargent moved to England, establishing himself as a leading portrait painter. He also traveled to the USA to paint, but he always returned to Europe, and enjoyed fame in multiple continents. In his later years, he largely turned away from portraiture in favor of landscape paintings.
Let’s explore a few of the many paintings by John Singer Sargent.
Paintings by John Singer Sargent: Master Copy
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1) The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882)
This early painting illustrates Sargent’s fascination with the Old Masters. Specifically, he adopts the natural and unposed manner akin to that in Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez.
The Boit family was among many American expatriates who lived in Paris in the late 1870s. Sargent was friends with Ned Boit, the girls’ father who graduated from Harvard Law School turned painter. He was married to Mary Louisa, whose inheritance allowed the whole family to live abroad. They lived in a luxurious apartment in Paris close to other Americans.
John Singer Sargent painted the family’s daughters in the foyer of their home—an peculiar intermediate space to choose for a setting. The room is sparse with only a rug and two tall Japanese vases, which were prized possessions of the family, and dwarf the girls in comparison. The girls wear casual clothes, all very similar to each other.
This painting deviates from traditional group portraiture in many ways—it is quite casual, is a mix between a portrait and an interior scene, and the girls’ features are not painted with specificity as most portraits are. Because of these unconventional aspects, critics initially had mixed reactions to the work.
At the time, it was interpreted as a fairly straightforward depiction of girls at play; since then, commenters have suggested that Sargent was abstractly expressing the ambiguities of adolescence, adding more interest to the discussion around the work.
2) El Jaleo (1882)
John Singer Sargent started working on this massive canvas in Paris following a five-month trip he took throughout Europe and North Africa a few years previously. El Jaleo‘s titlerefers to a popular dance—Sargent captures the essence of this dance with the bright lights, dark colors, and a dancing model in mid-motion.
The composition is based on drawings he made in southern Sapin on his trip. El Jaleo translates to “the ruckus” and fills rooms with heels clicking, hands clapping, and sounds of singing and guitar.
The enormity and drama of the composition is emphaszied by its unique placement in the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. The painting is housed behind an elaborate arch—when you enter the space, you feel as if you are in the dance hall along with the figures in the painting, emphasized by the huge size of the canvas.
3) Portrait of Madame X (1884)
Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X, done in 1884, is now considered one of his best works and was the artist’s personal favorite; eventually, Sargent sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. However, when it was unveiled in Paris at the 1884 Salon, it aroused such a negative reaction that it partially prompted Sargent to move to London.
The painting depicts Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, an American expatriate socialite known as Madame X. She was a high society woman famous for her elegant appearance and controversial reputation. The woman’s family did not commission a portrait—Sargent was simply captivated by her beauty and the scandal that was associated with her. He wanted to paint this controversial societal figure while capturing her stunning beauty—the artist hints at her reputation through a clearly self-confident pose.
Gautreau got bored with sitting for the painting. Sargent apparently said, regarding her personality, “the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau.” Sargent attempted to increase his own fame by depicting her beauty in this portrait; he did so by working without a commission to emphasize her daring personality and style.
Among the paintings by John Singer Sargent, this one is the most infamous.
4) Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885)
One of the more Impressionist paintings by John Singer Sargent is Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, which depicts two children lighting up Chinese lanterns in a garden.
In September of 1885, Sargent was boating on the Thames with fellow American artist Edwin Austin Abbey, and on his trip, he saw Chinese lanterns hanging among trees and lilies. While staying at a Worcestershire, England, shortly after moving from Paris, he started this composition using his hosts’ daughter as a model. However, soon after, he switched models to the daughters of another friend as they had the exact hair color Sargent was seeking.
He painted this outside in typical Impressionist fashion over a few months—he only worked on it for a few minutes every night when the lighting was perfect. Reportedly, he had to replace the natural flowers with artificial ones as they died out later in autumn. You can sense the purple evening light that Sargent was going for. At one point, he cut off two feet of the painting, making it nearly square.
When it was exhibited at the 1887 Royal Academy exhibition, the work was met with mixed reviews. Displayed in Britain, the painting was seen as too “Frenchified” by some. However, there was also much praise, and Tate Britain bought the work later that year—it remains in the Tate collection and is currently on display.
5) Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood (1885)
Although he was known for oil portraits during the height of his career, Sargent experimented with different media and styles early on. Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood demonstrates this and shows a different work than he is typically known for.
John Singer Sargent met Claude Monet while studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris—their friendship would withstand many years. He painted this work while visiting Monet in Giverny, outside Paris, and captures his contemporary painting en plein air. Monet’s second wife, Alice, is in the composition, sitting to her husband’s right.
The composition is interesting in that Monet is painting an expansive sky, his easel very visible, but Sargent chooses to paint a portrait of him and his wife, subtly exploring their relationship in doing so.
6) Bedouins (1905–1906)
Sargent traversed the then-called Ottoman Empire (now Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt) in 1905 and 1906, resulting in compositions inspired by his travels. Here, he depicts Arab desert nomads, known as Bedouins, who often lived in camps together.
This image, although it is more Impressionist that most of his works, shows the subtle nuance yet realism that Singer always achieves. In both the surroundings and the clothes of the men, he uses warm tones that hint at a desert setting under an intense direct sun. Their faces mostly covered, the two mens’ faces are serious and intense at the viewer. This was one among many works inspired by the Bedouins.
7) Another of Paintings by John Singer Sargent: Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892)
This captivating portrait highlights the varied skills in John Singer Sargent most famous paintings.
The woman—who was the young wife of barrister Andrew Noel Agnew—reclines in a chair. Her pose is fairly informal, yet her gaze is direct. Her expression is both mysterious, serious, and pleasant. Her outfit is elaborate and flowy, with fabric cascading down the composition, tied together with a large lilac sash. She is surrounded by the colorful upholstery of the armchair and the Chinese wall hanging, all of which come together to harmonize with Lady Agnew’s dress.
This 1892 painting made Sargent famous. Following the positive reception, he enjoyed heightened commissions and a dedicated following by Edwardian society—he became known as the most fashionable painter in both Europe and America. Additionally, Lady Agnew became more prevalent in society and was seen as a great beauty.
This painting brings together much of what Sargent does so well—the loose brushstrokes feel as if he painted them with ease, adding to the relaxed atmosphere, and the composition feels very fluid. However, she is still painted with realism and a distinct personality. He painted this in a total of just six sessions, later saying that sometimes his best results are created with fewer sittings.
This stunning work undoubtedly belongs on the list of John Singer Sargent most famous paintings.
8) Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889)
This intensely dramatic painting depicts actress Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. In 1888, the Shakespeare play was running at the London Lyceum. Dame Ellen Terry was a famous British actress whom captivated Sargent’s stage presence and appearance—he subsequently convinced her to sit for a portrait.
Interestingly, Sargent chose to invent a pose instead of replicating one from the actual play. He paints the subject in the moment when she places a crown on her head after the murder of Duncan, the Scottish king—this scene does not happen in Shakespeare’s text nor in how it was performed. A significant element of the composition is Terry’s elaborate costume, which flows down the entirety of the work. Sargent beautifully captures the iridescent effect of the outfit with tiny dabs of color.
Apparently, Sargent wanted to make a convincing dramatic portrait of both the actress and the character, a unique and complicated objective for a portrait. This work stands out from many other paintings by John Singer Sargent for a few reasons—the person is in a moment of apparent acting (not sitting as herself, even though it’s a portrait) and it has a very theatrical pose.
9) Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children (1896)
This portrait exemplifies what Sargent was so famous for—upper-class portraits. In Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children, Adele Meyer sits on a luxurious piece of furniture while her daughter and son stand behind her. Her arm reaches up to hold the hand of the young boy, but all three of their gazes stare out at the viewer.
Like many of Sargent’s commissions from affluent clients, this work portrays a family as a wealthy and sophisticated member of elite London social circles. His job was to capture them in the most flattering, luxurious, and glorious manner possible, which Sargent does expertly—the gilded furniture, the large rose silk gown of Adele, and an open book all point to this. The family looks like a sophisticated scholarly group surrounded by belongings that could’ve been in the Palace of Versailles. Although it is a group portrait, the emphasis is undoubtedly on Adele in order to solidify her place in society and convey her glamour.
10) Gassed (1919)
Standing at over 7.5 feet tall and 20 feet long, Gassed conveys a much different atmosphere than his portraits of the upper-class. He paints the aftermath of a German mustard gas attack in this painting.
Whereas most of the paintings by John Singer Sargent employ light and airy colors to capture scenes of leisure or sophisticated poses of bourgeoisie ladies, this work predominately uses somber khakis, beiges, and greens.
Sargent worked for the British Ministry of Information starting in 1918 to capture soldiers’ experience of wartime and the Anglo-American cooperation. In both the foreground and the background, groups of wounded men are walking towards a medical tent; they are holding onto each other for guidance, as the gas has compromised their vision. Dead bodies are everywhere on the sides of the road.
The painting evokes a touching sense of comraderie tarnished by the sorrows of war. Even though these men are alive right now, they are suffering from the agonizing effects of mustard gas.
It is one of several Modern masterpieces devoted to the atrocities of World War I and other early 20th century conflicts. Gassed was mixed with varied reception—some people thought it was plainly patriotic in almost a tacky way, but it remains a powerful symbol of conflict among the large amount of war paintings. Even though this isn’t exactly the typical painting of the artist, its powerful emotion and documentation of history makes it among John Singer Sargents most famous paintings.
After viewing the Paintings by John Singer Sargent here his Legacy
While Sargent was very well-known and fashionable during his lifetime, he (like many societal portrait painters) wasn’t significantly talked about in art history until more recently. Now, we recognize his style as an exciting blend of Impressionism and Realism, all executed with precision yet personality. We also remember him for subjects beyond portraiture—his landscapes and informal group portraits are masterpieces in their own right.
As far as monetary value of paintings by John Singer Sargent, an oil painting titled Group with Parasols (A Siesta) sold for a whopping $23,528,000 at a Sotheby’s auction in 2004. This widely surpassed the previous highest sale of a Sargent work by over double. John Singer Sargent most famous paintings are still highly sought after.
Needless to say, the masterpieces by Sargent have withstood the test of time and are still well thought of in the long history of art. A unique figure who existed within several different styles, John Singer Sargent created work that is distinctly him while beautifully immortalizing all of his subjects.