John Singer Sargent was born in Florence in 1856 to expatriate American parents, forever on the move across Europe. He trained as an art student in Paris, and it was there that he first came to public notice. In 1886 he exchanged Paris for London, and his first professional visit to the USA in 1887 resulted in a swathe of commissions and established his reputation. In the same year his picture of Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose was bought by the trustees of the Chantrey Bequest on behalf of the British nation. In 1890 he was given a commission for a major scheme of murals, Triumph of Religion, in the Boston Public Library, a project that would engross him for nearly thirty years.
During the 1890s, Sargent, American by citizenship but English by residence, became the pre-eminent transatlantic portraitist of his generation, painting many of the great figures of the age. Sargent’s portraits are admired for their insight into character, for their sense of grand design, brilliance of light and colour, and for their painterly fluency. The portraits that he painted of creative personalities are often a testament to friendship, but they also reflect the wide array of influences that formed his taste and aesthetic outlook. As a young man he lost no opportunity in meeting and cultivating those artists, writers, and musicians who shared his approach to art and culture, and who were themselves a source of inspiration to him.
Oil on canvas, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.
It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the role Sargent’s portrait of his master Carolus-Duran played in his career. Sargent entered his atelier in 1874 and was a stellar pupil from the beginning. Duran was a celebrated and conspicuous figure in the world of Parisian art and theatre. He was known for his stylish society portraits, which brought him great financial and social rewards, and for being something of a showman. He was highly influential as a teacher: his atelier, established in 1872, became a desirable alternative to the academic system, producing a number of important artists, many of them American. His approach was radical as he encouraged his young students to draw and paint simultaneously, using a loaded brush. He also promoted the cult of Velázquez and was a friend of Édouard Manet. Duran, however, came to be regarded with suspicion by progressives who considered that he had abandoned his principles to satisfy the market.
Sargent sent this portrait of Duran to the Salon in 1879, where it received an honourable mention. Almost without exception, the reviewers noted the master-pupil relationship: “it would not be possible for a pupil to pay a more dignified homage to his master;” “one of M. Carolus-Duran’s pupils, M. Sargent, has portrayed his master faithfully, but insufficiently dishevelled.” Sargent’s decision to paint and then exhibit a portrait of his master may have been strategic, but he could not have predicted that Duran would be awarded the Médaille d’honneur in 1879. Sargent went on to make the most of Duran’s celebrity and his own early success, sending the portrait to exhibitions in New York and Boston (1880), London (1882), and Paris again (1883).
Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood, ca. 1885
Oil on canvas, Tate, UK.
Sargent usually presented the sketches he made of friends and fellow artists to them as gifts, as was the tradition in artistic circles. This sketch of Claude Monet sitting at an easel in a landscape setting and painting a recognizable landscape is an exception. It remained with Sargent all his life and was in his studio when he died.
This modest painting has assumed importance in the history of Impressionism because it shows Monet doing what he advocated, painting sur le motif and en plein air. It may also be that it had a personal significance for Sargent. There is no doubt that he revered Monet. They probably met in the mid 1870s, but their artistic relationship was at its closest in the mid to late 1880s. By the autumn of 1885, Sargent was asking Monet about pigments (possibly in regard to Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose). Sargent’s side of the correspondence has not survived, but it is apparent that, at a stage when he was experimenting with landscape and figures painted under real conditions of light and more broken brushwork, he was seeking advice. In Monet’s letter to his wife, Alice, date to October 20, 1885, he writes that Sargent “is making an extraordinary enquiry about the use of yellow and green and asking me if I am coming to London; he needs me to advise him on the pictures he is working on.”
Sargent’s admiration for Monet accelerates at around this time. He starts expressing a desire to acquire paintings by the French master in 1886 and visits Giverny again in 1887 to begin his own Monet collection. Monet visited Sargent the following year, and, in 1889, they were hard working partners in their successful bid to purchase Édouard Manet’s Olympia for the French nation.
Sargent shows Monet painting a specific canvas rather than a generic landscape. The line of trees, the delicately flushed sky, the clump of haystacks, and the larger haystack on the left (cut off by the edge of the canvas), can almost certainly be identified as Près à Giverny, now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Sargent was in France in July 1885 and Monet is known to have worked on this painting at least from late June until August 22, 1885.
Antonio Mancini, 1902
Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, Rome, IT
Sargent once described this Italian artist as the best living painter. Mancini was born, and died, in Rome. In the 1860s he moved to Naples where he attended the atelier of Giuseppe Mancinelli and Domenico Morelli, who introduced him to Naturalism. During the 1870s Mancini visited Paris regularly, frequented its international artistic milieu, and began to establish a reputation as a portraitist. Mancini arrived in London in later June 1901, where Sargent introduced him to influential patrons like Mrs. Charles Hunter and Asher Wertheimer and helped to promote his career in England.
This portrait is a painting with expressive brushwork that Sargent executed in a little more than an hour, probably around 1895, or possibly in the early months of 1902. It is mentioned in the diary of the artist Charles Ricketts. We know that, around the same time, Mancini sketched a portrait of Sargent, a now lost abbozzo, which once hung in on a wall of Sargent’s studio in Fulham Road, London.
The Mancini portrait has an interesting story: it was given by Sargent to Mancini, who gave it to young Wertheimer, who gave it to his father, who in turn gave it back to Sargent. Sargent placed the portrait in his 31 Tite Street studio. An early 20th century photograph shows the picture leaning against the fireplace. It probably remained there until the 1920s when it found its way back to Mancini, who, in 1925, gave it to Rome’s Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna.
In 1904, Sargent sketched another small portrait of Mancini — a watercolour, in which the Italian is portrayed in close-up with Ena Wertheimer. Sargent also collected several paintings by Mancini, four of which were sold in the Sargent estate sale at Christie’s in 1925 and one, The Maker of Figures, which he gave to the Municipal Gallery of Dublin, where it still hangs today.
John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist. By Trevor Fairbrother. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000; Claude Monet, 1840-1926. By Joseph Baillio et al. Paris: Musée d’Orsay, 2010.
Cordially, etc. etc.