John Singer Sargent was born in Florence in 1856. He was the second child of American surgeon Fitzwilliam Sargent (1820-1889) and of Mary Newbold Singer (1826-1906), scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family who had a passionate interest in art and literature. After the death of their first child, Mary, at the age of two, the couple had left America in 1854, hoping that the Mediterranean climate would improve the grieving mother’s state of health. The uncertainty which prevailed in America in the period immediately preceding the Civil War (1861-1865) led John’s parents to have him educated in Europe. The boy would thus pass his childhood in some of the continent’s most fascinating cities, living within a very cosmopolitan world that extended from Italy to France, Spain, Switzerland and Germany; he would, in fact, speak four languages, have a cultivated interest in literature and study the pianoforte. It was his mother who encouraged his interest in painting, and in 1873 the youth would enrol at the Florence Accademia di Belle Arti. In the spring of the following year, however, he moved to Paris, the undisputed centre of modern art and the necessary starting-point for anyone seriously considering a career as an artist. There, Sargent would study under Charles-Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, a renowned portrait-painter, whose concern to render light and shade in the direct application of paint would leave a lasting mark on the young man’s own style. At the same time as studying in Carolus-Duran’s studio, Sargent also prepared for the École des Beaux-Arts entrance exam. In 1876 he met Claude Monet, who would become a friend, and that same year travelled to the United States. Having returned to France to continue his studies, Sargent spent the summer in the town of Cancale (Brittany), where he applied Carolus-Duran’s technique in a number of works depicting people at work in the open air. In 1877 he not only exhibited his first work at the Paris Salon – the portrait of a family friend, Fanny Watts – but also worked with Carolus-Duran on the fresco decoration of the ceiling at the Palais du Luxembourg. In 1878 he painted his Oyster Gatherers at Cancale (now at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.), which would win a ‘special mention’ at that year’s Salon, thus establishing Sargent’s reputation in Paris. In September he visited Naples, spending a short time on Capri, where he painted the series of studies of Rosina Ferrara; one of these was the Girl of Capri that was exhibited at the Society of American Artists in New York. In 1879 Sargent undertook a number of study-trips to explore the art of the masters of the past. In winter, for example, he was in Spain, where he studied the works of Velazquez; in September he was in Venice, where his art focused on dark alleyways, interiors of decaying magnificence, and mysterious, illusive women. These years also saw him produce various portraits of remarkable freshness – for example, that of his childhood friend Vernon Lee, a vivid work that would be exhibited at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris along with four Venetian studies. At a Paris auction of 1884 Sargent bought two sketches by Eduard Manet, before moving to London later that year. His friend Henry James not only introduced him to London social circles but also had a far from negligible influence on the work of an artist whose portraits gained in psychological insight. That same year he would exhibit the famous Portrait of Madame X (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The work – whose original title identified the sitter: Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, a wealthy and beautiful society hostess in Paris – caused such a scandal that it seriously threatened his career in the French capital; as a result, Sargent moved to London, where he quickly established himself as a portrait painter. During the summer of 1885 the artist would spend some time in the small Worcestershire village of Broadway. One of the works he produced there was Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (now in the Tate Gallery, London), whose luminous colours and decorative finish would be much appreciated when the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in May 1887. The year 1885 also marked Sargent’s first visit to Monet’s home at Giverny, as well as his growing interest in peinture en plein air. Having taken over the studio formerly used by Whistler, whom he had met in Venice a few years earlier, the artist would do a number of paintings on the Thames. Later he would move to the United States, where his reputation preceded him, thanks not only to the artists and architects he had met in Paris but also to an intriguing article upon him which Henry James published in the American press. As a result, Sargent would receive various important commissions for work. In 1888 came his first one-man show in Boston, which was a triumphant success, and an article on his work in “Art Journal”. Monet would visit him in London in October of that year; and in 1890 Sargent would show work at the Exposition Universelle, as well as being made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and receiving the commission for the murals at the Boston Public Library. Charting the history of religions, from paganism through Hebraism to the birth of Christianity, this cycle was the first of three important public commissions that would occupy him for over thirty years, right up to his death in 1925. Meanwhile Sargent embarked on a number of trips to further explore the art of the past, visiting Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Spain and, once more, Italy. In 1897 Sargent was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy in London, and that same year became a member of the National Academy of Design in New York, where he was by then the chosen portraitist of the WASP establishment. In 1898 he visited Venice. In 1899 there was the second one-man show in Boston, where his mural cycle was installed in 1903. By now tired of portrait-painting, Sargent enjoyed enough economic security to be able to dedicate himself to a freer, more experimental approach to painting. The trips aboard began once more; in 1901 he was in Norway, in 1905 in Palestine, in 1903, 1908 and 1912 in Spain and, once more, Italy. Now it was gardens and mountain vistas which attracted his attention. Parks, statues and fountains reveal his unfailing interest in Renaissance and Mannerist art; pathways and streams provided him with the opportunity to render dramatic views and shifting light effects in works that make peinture en plein air even more spontaneous. Now watercolour was the medium that seemed best suited to the capture of immediate visual sensation. From 1904 onwards Sargent would exhibit regularly at the Royal Water-colour Society in London. In 1909 the Brooklyn Museum bough 83 watercolours; in 1912 the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston bought 45,and in 1915 the Metropolitan would acquire a group of such works direct from the artist. In 1907 King Edward VII proposed Sargent for a knighthood, which was not awarded simply because he was not a British subject; however the artist would receive honorary degrees from various of the world’s most important universities. In 1916-1918 he was in Boston, where he was commissioned to decorate the Rotunda in the Museum of Fine Arts. During this period he would, even though he had abandoned the genre a decade earlier, also agree to paint the portraits of the oil magnate John D. Rockefeller and of Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States. However Sargent’s mind was focussed primarily on the large official commissions to commemorate the Great War. In March 1925 he finished the cycle of murals in Boston. On the evening of 14 April his sister Emily would organise a farewell dinner in London for Sargent and a few close friends; that night the artist would die in his sleep at his home in Tite Street. On 3 November of that year the first retrospective of his work would open at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.