Case Study

  John Singer Sargent's

"Portrait of General Lucius Fairchild"


John Singer Sargent

Biographical History:

 John Singer Sargent
Numerous books and catalogs have been written on the life and times of John Singer Sargent. For the purposes of this case study, his career is reviewed to the completion of the treated painting.
John Singer Sargent has always been harvested as an American artist. In truth, he spent very little time in America. He was born in Florence, Italy on January 12, 1856 to his American parents, Dr. Fitzwilliam Sargent and Mary Newbold Singer Sargent.(7) As a young man, he traveled constantly throughout Europe. By the time he was fifteen he had visited the major cities in Italy, Switzerland, England, France, Germany and Spain. Mrs. Sargent was an amateur painter and the family encouraged their son's early artistic instincts.
At the age of seventeen Sargent enrolled at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence. The following year he joined the Parisian atelier of the well-respected Carolus -Duran. This left a lasting impression on the young artist for Duran had studied in Italy and Spain and was highly influenced by Velázquez and Hals. In 1874, Sargent prepared for the difficult entrance examinations to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. After the three-week ordeal, he placed 37th out of 162 applicants, and was accepted.
The following year, at the age of twenty, he made his first trip to America visiting Philadelphia, Niagara Falls and Chicago. By returning to America before his 21st birthday, he was able to obtain his American citizenship. He returned to Paris in 1877 to take the yearly examinations for the Ecole. This time he placed 2nd, the highest place ever awarded to an "American." Eighteen seventy-seven was a breakthrough year for the young painter. His "Portrait of Fanny Watts" was exhibited at the Salon and his "Fishing for Oysters at Cancale" was selected for the first Society of American Artists exhibit in New York.

"Portrait of Fanny Watts" 1877
The Philadelphia Museum of Art

"Fishing for Oysters at Cancale" 1877-8
The Corcoran Gallery of Art
Washington, D.C.
Sargent's fame soared when he exhibited his "Portrait of Carolus-Duran" at the 1879 French Salon. The painting was awarded an Honorable Mention and it mysteriously captured the essence of his sitter in just a few brushstrokes. The painting was also exhibited the following year at the second exhibition of the Society of American Artists. It was in this year that Sargent traveled to Haarlem to view and study the paintings of the great Dutch master, Frans Hals. Sargent's reputation as a portrait artist continued to grow when he completed the "Portrait of Dr. Pozzi." While the painting was not highly received at the time, it is considered today one of his early masterpieces.

"Portrait of Carolus-Duran" 1879
The Sterling and Francine Clark Institute
Williamstown, Massachusetts

"Portrait of Dr. Pozzi" 1881
The Armand Hammer Collection
Los Angeles, California
"The Daughters of Edward D. Boit" was completed in 1882 and exhibited at the Salon of 1883. Ormond states, "Critics regarded the composition, and its preoccupation with formal principles, as unconventional, even eccentric...The room is disproportionately large for the figures of the girls...The deliberate lack of relationship between the children, who seem to inhabit private and solitary worlds, each separated from the others by space and shadows, (seems to) contribute to the air of mystery and ambiguity."(8) The following Salon marked Sargent's first scandal when he exhibited the provocative "Madame X" portrait of Madame Gautreau . The painting caused an uproar as the French found the portrayal immodest and in poor taste. Today it is one of his best-known images and yet, to remove himself from his detractors, he left Paris and established a studio in London .

"The Daughters of Edward D. Boit" 1882
The Museum of Fine Arts
Boston, Massachusetts

"Madame X" 1884
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The transition to England was difficult. While he did receive some commissions, he saw his career as faltering. In October of 1886, Henry James introduced him to the influential Bostonian art patron, Isabella Stuart Gardner. Shortly thereafter he received a commission to paint a portrait of Mrs. Henry Marquand who was married to a wealthy New York banker. Sargent offered to execute the painting for the lofty sum of $3,000.00. Much to his surprise the price was accepted. In 1887, he sailed for Boston and quickly set about to complete the painting. Numerous other commissions followed. Three months later, in December of 1887, at the age of thirty-one, Sargent began his "Portrait of Isabella Stuart Gardner" and completed the focus of this case study, the "Portrait of General Lucius Fairchild."

"Portrait of Isabella Stuart Gardner" 1888
Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum
Boston, Massachusetts

"Portrait of General Lucius Fairchild" 1887
The State Historical Society of Wisconsin
Madison, Wisconsin
(7) Historical information taken from Richard Ormond/Elaine Kilmurray John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits . 1998. Yale University Press.
(8) Ormond. Ibid. p. 66. (Seems to) inserted by the author for continuity purposes.

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