A major exhibition opening at the Denver Art Museum this month examines the master's enduring attraction to the country of his birth
John Singer Sargent is a celebrated master of the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose work has been an important influence on many of today's painters. Though he is most famous for his grand manner portraits, Sargent began his career painting the island of Capri and the byways of Venice, and he returned to Italy every year for nearly 20 years to paint his favorite subjects. More than 75 such works are included in the exhibition Sargent and Italy, on view at the Denver Art Museum June 28-September 21. The following article is excerpted from the introduction to the catalog which accompanies the exhibition.
As an artist, John Singer Sargent always moved among several worlds: the art worlds of academic painting and Impressionism in Paris, where he received his training; and the worlds of high-society portraiture and high-minded mural painting, in England and the United States, where he made his career and lived most of his life. The nature of both his success and his genius may be said to consist of a delicate balance between advanced painting and traditional subject, a balancing act he carried on in most aspects of his life. That act began at birth: Sargent was an American who was also an Italian. A contradictory nature, being both things and neither, marked him from the very beginning. Of all the subjects and places he painted, however, Italy came the closest to making him whole.
Sargent was born in Florence in 1856 to American parents who had come to Italy after the death of their first child, a daughter; his parents never returned to live in the United States. The Sargents traveled through Europe incessantly in pursuit of health and culture, returning most frequently to Italy. Italy afforded a place both to relieve themselves of one past and to discover a new set of memories. A country older and elevatedly classical, but also warm and sensual, Italy spoke to mind and body alike. It was the land of Republican and Imperial Rome, as well as the Renaissance of the Medici, of Leonardo, and Michelangelo. But it was also a land of color, of uninhibited emotion and extravagance, of the Papacy. And finally, it was, like America, a land identified with the fight for liberty, full of revolutionary heroes like Garibaldi, Mazzini, and Manin (the Kingdom of Italy was not to be declared until 1861, and Venetia was not freed from the control of Austria until 1866). Sargent would have imbibed all these associations, although one suspects that he, like Edith Wharton, who had lived in Rome at about the same age as Sargent, would have recalled "simply the warm scent of the box hedges of the Pincian, and the texture of weather-worn sun-gilt stone."
Such shards of sensation feed the imagination of a visual artist. By the age of 12, Sargent was sketching the artistic and scenic wonders of Italy. He received his first systematic art instruction in Florence but quickly left for the professional, international training that one could obtain only in Paris, in 1874. Two years later, he went to the United States to see the Centennial celebrations and to claim his birthright, American citizenship. In 1877, the year after his first exhibition at the Salon, he returned to Italy to find new Salon subject matter in the peasant life of Naples and Capri. Having decided that the exotic Mediterranean would provide fertile material, he went to Spain and Morocco next. In 1880, he established himself in Venice. The score of genre paintings and architectural studies he painted there in the next two years resulted in only one large-scale finished painting, and Sargent seems to have decided that he should better put his efforts into portraiture. He returned to Italy briefly the next year and then stayed away until he had established himself as the leading portrait painter in the English-speaking …