Several of those who were among the British Impressionists weren’t British at all. Whistler, the chief instigator, was American and spent much of his career in France. The other justly famous American who played a key part in the development of the movement was John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), who today isn’t normally even considered to have been an Impressionist. In this article, I hope to convince you that he was one of the leading members of the British Impressionists.
Sargent was born to American expatriate parents in Florence, Italy, in 1856. He trained with Carolus-Duran in Paris, then at the École des Beaux-Arts there. He established himself as a highly successful portraitist in Paris from 1877 until 1884, when he was driven by a scandal to move to London. His problems surrounded a superb Portrait of Madame X which he exhibited at the Salon. At the time, Salon conventions excluded the names of sitters from the titles of portraits shown there, so there’s nothing sinister about the title. Rather it was the eroticism of his painting which aroused controversy, as the young woman in question was well-known in high society, and married to a prominent French banker.
Sargent’s early style was realist, particularly in portraiture, and leaned towards Impressionism, but was quite distinct from the work of the leading Impressionists at that time. He started to travel throughout Europe, and in 1878 visited the island of Capri, where found a local woman, Rosina Ferrara, who seemed happy to pose for him. She was only 17, Sargent a mere 22 and just developing his skills in portraiture.
One of his painting of her, Dans les Oliviers, à Capri, he exhibited at the Salon the following year, and shows the looseness developing in his style.
Sargent painted these Venetian Glass Workers during a visit in the period 1880-82.
Sargent had first met Claude Monet in 1876, and it’s thought that his painting of Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood was made in 1885, when they were painting together at Monet’s house in Giverny. At the right is Alice, Monet’s wife.
By 1886, Sargent had fully settled into his London studio, and the following year had established his reputation, which was reinforced when he exhibited Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose at the Royal Academy. From then until he closed his studio in 1907, he was the leading portrait painter in London. In spite of his obvious success, he was among those who were unhappy with the Royal Academy, and was a founding member of the New English Art Club in 1886.
During the 1880s he painted realist portraits, but his uncommissioned work often took him plein air and with progressively loosening style. He visited France frequently, attending the Impressionist exhibitions, and developing his friendship with Monet. His informal works were often very loose bravura gatherings of marks, which appear to have been painted very quickly indeed.
This is shown well in Sargent’s virtuoso Gust of Wind (above) from about 1886-7, which compares with Claude Monet’s La Promenade (below), painted in 1875.
By the end of the 1880s, his critics in Britain considered him an Impressionist, but Monet thought that he was still under too much influence of Carolus-Duran to be considered Impressionist. His portrait business prospered: in 1887-8 he toured the US and gained over twenty important commissions, including that of Isabella Stewart Gardner, a major patron of the arts in Boston.
His watercolours of Venice show well how he assembled a series of marks, gestural strokes of the brush, into amazingly real images of the city, its canals and buildings.
When not painting in front of the motif, Sargent often used improvised studios during his travels through Europe.
This portrait of an Arab Woman from 1905-06 is another fine example of his sketchy style in watercolour.
At times, his brushstrokes appear so casual that it’s almost as if he was just doodling with pigment, as in the blue shadows of In a Levantine Port (1905-6). But they coalesce into the image which Sargent clearly had in his mind all the way along, and pop out at the viewer.
The American artists Jane de Glehn and her husband Wilfrid (1870-1951) were long-standing friends. Sargent first met Wilfrid around 1895 when he was working on murals in the Boston Public Library, and Wilfrid married Jane Emmet (1873-1961, sister of Lydia Field Emmet) in 1904. The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy (1907) shows Jane working at a lightweight wooden easel in the grounds of this villa.
Sargent was an early adopter of cadmium yellow pigment in watercolours such as Olive Trees, Corfu from 1909, where it ensured that his greens were lightfast.
His larger oil paintings often show finer details, which were almost certainly developed later in the studio, but even in those there is a distinct painterliness, as shown in this view of workers Bringing Down Marble from the Quarries in Carrara which Sargent painted in 1911.
This watercolour shows Sargent’s sister Emily, also a keen artist, sketching In the Generalife (1912) at the Alhambra in Spain. Behind her is Jane de Glehn, and to the right is a Spanish friend known only as Dolores. The unusual highlight effect seen in bushes above them, and on parts of the ground, was produced by scribbling with a colourless beeswax crayon, which resists the watercolour paint, one of the many sophisticated techniques which he used in these quick sketches.
During his long career in Britain, Sargent associated with Whistler, Sickert, Hercules Brabazon Brabazon and several other British Impressionists. In the later years of the First World War, he served British forces as a war artist, when he travelled and painted with Henry Tonks.
Tragically, Sargent faced increasing criticism of his outdated style and refusal to embrace the new styles of Cubism or Futurism. After the war he spent more time in the USA, but died in London in 1925, the most successful of all the British Impressionists, despite his lifelong American citizenship and the fact that he had never joined any Impressionist group.