Widgets January 12 ~  Beneath the Surface Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X

"I don't dig beneath the surface for things that don't appear before my own eyes." ~ John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent

Called "the greatest virtuoso of the paintbrush in the history of American art" by biographer Kate F. Jennings, portrait painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was born on this day in Florence, Italy.

He once said, "A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth."

His American parents traveled Europe searching for comfort following the death of Sargent's infant sister. By age 11, young John was fluent in French and Italian and practiced drawing all the time, filling sketchbooks with landscapes and figures.

"You can't do sketches enough," he said. "Sketch everything and keep your curiosity fresh."

He trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and in 1884 propelled to international fame with Madame X, a provocative portrait of Virginie Gautreau in a black satin dress, what Sargent called "the Portrait of a Great Beauty." The artwork caused a great scandal.

"I paint objects, not views," he said.

By the time he moved to London in 1886, Sargent had become a master of light and brushwork, creating seemingly effortless masterpieces in oil, watercolor, and pastel. With passionate colors, he captured the essence and vitality of his subjects. The rich and famous--Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, W. B. Yeats, John D. Rockefeller, Robert Louis Stevenson, and more--all sat for him.

"Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend," he said.

A gifted musician, Sargent taught at the Royal Academy of Schools. In 1890, he began to create the spectacular murals--of paint, metal, paper, and jewels--at the Boston Public Library. Sargent considered this his most important work and the project took him 24 years to complete.

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