John Singer Sargent, American Renaissance, and the Ex-Patriots

John Singer Sargent spent most of his life in France and Western Europe.  Even though he was an “American” artist, his experiential roots are much closer to the European model.  Sargent’s professional success was centered on his extraordinary talents as a face painter.  Notwithstanding his financial success as a portrait painter, Sargent had a love/hate relationship with face painting.  Sargent is attributed to have said:  “Every time I paint a portrait, I lose a friend.”  What are your thoughts on John Singer Sargent, his work, and his love/hate relationship with face painting?

John Singer Sargent, Self Portrait, 1906

John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo, 1882


About roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.
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24 Responses to John Singer Sargent, American Renaissance, and the Ex-Patriots

  1. B. Mann says:

    My first reaction is to assume that the quote “every time I paint a portrait, I lose a friend” reflects the impression that artists can never fully capture the essence of someone. Though many artists are successful in capturing particular personality traits as well as physical appearance no one can fully capture the aura of an individual. Every time he paints a portrait…the painting left over is not the same as the person the sits before him but at the same time it can be view as gaining a new one.

    It could also mean that the time that an artist spends with a sitter can be quite long and during this time you develop a relationship and really get to understand that person. When the painting is finished you may never see that person again and may be left feeling like you lost a friend.

  2. eric burwell says:

    MAybe he could have thought about it in a way where he captures the person better then they really are. This might make him lose them as friends by the way he has elevated the mundane to superior levels. He can never see them the same since the portrait is such of amazement that the person is just gone and non interesting anymore. Plus Sargent has also locked them into one moment in time. So when we hold something all will be lost or changed from that moment on.

  3. Heather Roberts says:

    It is hard to be a successful artist in this time and age, it was even harder to be a successful artist when John Singer Sargent was alive. I feel like that quote could mean a number of different things. Maybe, he feels like the portraits come in between him and his friends because people see things different than he does, and that creates disagreement and in turn- ends their relationship. Maybe John Singer Sargent reads way into it and is not seeing the reality of it- he could just of been over dramatic and took others opinion too hard.

  4. Peter Fajardo says:

    Before I finished reading the passage above, I initially thought that it was a love/hate relationship because he was not financially satisfied. In retrospect, he WAS successful and very talented. The only way I understand his love/hate relationship with portraiture and him losing a friend in a portrait is that, perhaps he gets attached to what he creates. Artist of all kinds in a degree gets attached to their creations. Since John Singer Sargent was a superb artist, I think he may have felt that he lost a friend when he sold his pieces.

  5. Perhaps John Sargent’s love and hate came from the fact that he was looking for perfection and he could not find it. When I think about his quote, I take it as if he was being very harsh and brutally honest while he was painting and that is why he was losing friends. When I look at his work, I can see that he was not holding back on reality but that is what, I think, made his work so brilliant.

  6. Caitlin M says:

    I think that John Singer Sargent was a very talented artist who was greatly influenced by his childhood filled with traveling around Europe. Though some people thought his work was “too unconventional,” I think it was really breathtaking. For example one of his critical pieces called “the daughters of Edward Darley” was, in my opinion, beautifully balanced from a compositional aspect and rendered with his style of loose brushwork beautifully. I really enjoyed this piece and I think his style that concentrated on freedom and naturalism was impressive and very close to tfe impressionist painters. I can see how his style could make or break portraits and I know how hard painting faces can be so I completely understand that struggle.

  7. Hwanhee Lee says:

    I believe Sargent meant that when he did a portrait of someone, he felt he got to know him or her well, and when the painting was given away…he felt a loss. Then again, at one time, he was the world’s most famous and highly paid portrait painter. He was famous for his portraits of American and English social celebrities. In 1884, before he achieved acclaim, a scandal broke out when he exhibited Portrait of Madame X in Paris. The subject, Madame Gautreau, wore a low-cut gown, which critics considered erotic. Paris was offended, Gautreau refused the painting, and Sargent moved to London. So basically, it could be that since he received so much criticism, he hated doing portraiture but at the same time, it was what he was exceptional at, and he knew that. When the sitters would pick out what they didn’t like about what he did with his portraits, his relationship with the some of the sitters might have gone sour.

  8. Kristy Asato says:

    Anytime I see a “love/hate relationship” an artist has with his or her own art form, I think about the issues surrounding the commodification of art. What starts off as something novel can quickly become tedious. The artist starts off with a talent, capitalizes on it, and then becomes forever associated with that success. How do you evolve and stay solvent if the market is resistant to change? When does one sell out? An artist who earns a living from their work must balance business and artistic desires, so they have enough money and drive to keep doing it. I can see how professional portrait painters, or even photographers, must face these tough questions once they move beyond academic theory into harsh artistic practice.

    • Kristen Carroll says:

      I feel for him when he says that “every time he does a portrait he loses a friend.” My concentration does not apply to drawing or painting, yet i have been commissioned to do a lot of portrait pieces. I think that everyone loves their portraits taken, their families portraits taken, and portraits in general so people constantly are asking for one. Yet it is so hard to capture a persons heart and soul in the piece, you can capture the likeness of them so when people look at them they know that its that person but its super hard to capture their personality. So when people do not get what they want they tend to get upset… hence him losing that close friend. Ive seen it happen before and im sure it will happen in the future. people see an image in their head of what they want and think that is what they should get but its up to the artists creativity to produce what they know to be.

  9. dyanahepburn says:

    People say they admire truthfulness and honesty, but in reality they do not. They want reality to match their wishes. When someone pays an artist to paint their portrait they expect him to do his best job and that implies to make them look their best. The Puritans did not want to be painted just for beauty’s sake because they believed in the inner soul showing through. But the Romantic era brought back the older European tradition of perfectionism and beauty as an aspect of it. Singer lost friends because he painted what he saw.

  10. Jennifer Frazell says:

    Sargent said, “Everytime I paint a portrait, I lose a friend.” I believe because of the long process of painting portraits, he became very attached to his pieces, just as a lot of artists do. Sargent put so much time and effort into his portraits they became a part of him, a friend. Then he would have to give the portrait to whoever commissioned the piece and he would “lose a friend.”

  11. Jessica Villalpando says:

    I think Sargent felt if he was going to paint a portrait of someone it had to be perfect. A feeling artists always feel when they begin to appraoch any subject, as to make them accurate and meaningful. Here, Sargent must have put a lot of pressure on himself in oder to capture every detail of the person he was painting, feeling he couldn’t leave anything out that would improperly portray the person. An artist’s so true to his work he must of always felt he could do more, which may have lead to his belief of losing a friend upon completion of a painting.

  12. cuencaso says:

    Last semester, I took Painting 1 and my last two projects included copying a master portrait and then making a self-portrait in that style, wearing the same clothing as the figure….I did Sargent’s ‘Head of a Capri Girl’
    The outcome was very interesting. Everything had to be taken into consideration. Making a portrait isn’t a simple copy, like a printer. The color, the lighting, the brushwork all contributed to the mood of the portrait. What I realized while copying and adapting to my own frame of mind and hand to the portrait, was that Sargent didn’t just copy someones face onto the canvas, he delved into the very core of their soul, brought out the beautiful and the ugly, and I don’t just mean the physical flaws. I could see how this would either upset the sitter or maybe even repulse the artist, thus what he meant by losing friends.
    I am nowhere near Sargent’s level, so I had to adapt the painting to my own hand and ideas about it.I had used both a photograph and a mirror for my final self-portrait, upon seeing the portrait, you wouldn’t be able to tell it was taken from the same photograph, it came out dark because I knew from the original, that I couldn’t hold back.

  13. Jess C. says:

    After looking at his portraits, Im wondering why he felt that way. It looks like he did a pretty good job capturing these people. To me, the quote makes me think that the friends he painted didnt think they were good enough or they were too good which in turn made the patron feel bad about themselves. At the same time, this is a very general quote about why he had the love/hate relationship. I feel like I would need a bit more information on how he felt to understand why he said that.

  14. Patricia Luisi says:

    The way I understand his quote with the information given, the two paintings that are shown, one being a self portrait and the other being a masterpiece. I would have to say that he thinks he’s loosing himself and his desire to paint because the portrait that is shown is the portrait of himself and he feels that if he continues to paint portraits he will lose more and more of himself, and won’t be able to paint the things he loves like El Jaleo. Another way this can be interpreted is that he has his own style of painting and will make the friend that he is painting look different and in that sense he is losing the initial appearance of his friend.

  15. Amber Eilers says:

    I think Sargent became attached to his paintings. To him, each painting was a friend, when he was finished, he lost the connection with the portrait and the emotion his subject was portraying. Something that I love about portraits is that they are all very different and each one encourages a different emotion. Sargent missed each one once he was finished.

  16. dyanahepburn says:

    It is interesting to note how American portraiture changed in concept from its inception with the Puritans and their limners. Early portraiture was not concerned with the ideals of beauty and flattering the subject. The early concept of physiognomy prohibited changing the subject into something they were not. Their face was to be the outward expression of their soul. By the time Sargent came along, America had fallen into the European influence of aristocracy, wealth, and self-importance. From that standpoint, I can certainly understand that someone commissioning a portrait would expect to be painted as attractive, at least. Sargent had to make a choice between being true to his “paint what you see” artistic training, and keeping wealthy patrons to support him.

  17. racre says:

    Refering back to the quote, “everytime I paint a portrait, I lose a friend” tells me that he cannot capture every quality in each portrait of his friends. Because he knows them on a intelect level, it goes deeper then just the actual pyhsical perseption. He feels he fails painting their portrait so that equals losing a friend.

  18. Jason Carrara says:

    Sargent’s statement baffles me to be honest. I am not an artist, so it is diffcilt for me to translate their thought processes or feelings into something I can comprehend as an observer. His statement is ambiguous, but I think it means that he establishes a relationship with the work on a very personal level to the point where he misses the work as if it were a person once it is sold. This is completely understandable, for when someone spends that much time, detail, and effort in to a work it becomes very meaningful. The painting becomes a real person to him. He has a deft ability to capture the human likeness in portrait, which makes what I interpreted logical to me.

  19. JennaLarkin says:

    I think that John Singer Sargent’s quote “Every time I paint a portrait, I lose a friend” is very interesting. On the surface people might read that quote and think that maybe his friends would disapprove of the results of his face painting. But knowing his success and talent with this kind of art, I believe that he meant something totally different. When I am painting and trying to either copy a face/object/or landscape I notice that I start getting very critical of my own art. I start seeing details from the original and flaws from my duplicate that most people would never notice. And whether or not I like to admit it I continue to think about those frustrations long after I am done with the painting. Maybe what he was saying is that even though he did a great job at face painting, he found his perfectionist qualities made him over think about his work and the person sitting for him.

  20. Cheuk Sham says:

    ”Every time I paint a portrait, I lose a friend” is an interesting quote from a successful portrait artist. Since he was successful in his business, I have a hard time interpreting the quote. Though I think the love/hate relationship he developed is perhaps due to the nature of humanity: he got tired of the same daily routine or he regularly happened to meet impolite people who think they are always right and give harsh criticism to his works, like a customer in today’s world.

  21. danielle nazareno says:

    I know exactly how Sargent feels and I find it quite humorous because after I do a portrait on someone, my response is the same and I despise the individual. I think we share this same frustration because of course you want your art to portray the individual as closest and as effective as you can and when you don’t get it right and you personally know the individual, you find a certain anger/frustration with that person for being so difficult to capture. If things go astray with my artwork, naturally Ill blame it on the individual and question why I chose to capture them to begin with regardless if it’s not their fault.

  22. Josh Beauchamp says:

    I find Sargent’s work to be incredible, particularly in how he uses dynamic lighting to create strong shadows on his subjects. As for his love/hate relationship with face painting, I can definitely see why he would feel that way. Portraying someone not only on the outside but their inner thoughts as well requires the artist to delve into the mind of the subject creating a very personal bond. The way in which he paints his subjects may not be the way in which the subject views him or herself and could create a conflict between the two. Or perhaps there are things that the subject does not want to share with an audience that Sargent wishes to portray in his painting.

  23. Caleb Kelly says:

    Can it be said that those who tell the truth, have few friends; and those who spread lies have friends as great as the sand?

    People often times do not like the truth. Sargent’s paintings have an honest quality about them. In Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Newton Phelps Strokes touches on themes of gender equality, by the way he places the female figure in from of her male counterpart.

    Sargent’s popularity heightened in London after his masterpiece, Madam X, was exhibited. Perhaps he lost friends when every portrait he was commissioned to complete failed to deliver, when they were nothing like Madam X.

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