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Sargent: The Masterworks by Stephanie L. Herdrich, Rizzoli, US $50.00, Pp 224, March 2018, ISBN 978-0847862399

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was without a doubt one of the greatest impressionists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He was born into an American family who was living in Europe at that time. He was raised in Paris where he established himself as a painter but later moved to England and then to the United States. In Sargent, Stephanie L. Herdrich surveys and evaluates the extraordinary range of Sargent’s works with the help of more than 200 of his works. Stephanie L. Herdrich separately covers Sargent’s childhood in Paris, his mid-career works in England and America and his later years’ out-door paintings. Sargent was already celebrated in his lifetime as “the greatest contemporary portrait painter” of his times.

Stephanie L. Herdrich tells us that the celebrated portraits for which Sargent is commonly known are only one aspect of his career that included landscape, watercolors, and murals. In his portraits, Sargent challenged traditional ideas about the genre, provoking viewers with unconventional choices of subject and style. Stephanie L. Herdrich says that many of his greatest portraits, which seem so familiar to us today, were seen as progressive and deemed eccentric in their day, perhaps none more so than the iconic “Madame X” (Madame Pierre Gautreau). Sargent’s portrayal of her scandalous character and self-fashioning still captivates the millions of visitors who come to gaze at her mysterious beauty each year at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Like many of Sargent’s portraits, Madame X transcends individual likeness to embody the dramatically changing society in which it was painted.

In the 1900s, Sargent grew weary of the demands of the portrait studios, particularly the sustained effort of pleasing difficult patrons. In 1907, he formally declared that he would no longer accept commissions and ended this successful chapter of his career and devoted himself to his mural work and approached the creation of art with an eye to art with an eye to art history — firmly rooted in the belief that the study of the great art of the past and present was an essential component to creating a modern, personal art with, as one contemporary critic described it, “his own intense and vigorous individuality.” He would incorporate his passion for art history into all aspects of his work, especially his murals.

Sargent’s extraordinarily prolific career went beyond portraiture. At the height of his celebrity and demand as a portraitist, Stephanie L. Herdrich says, he shunned commissions in favor of painting landscapes and subject pictures, in oil and watercolor, of people and places that were dear to him. These personal works were again widely celebrated by critics and sought after by public and private collectors. Stephanie L. Herdrich says that Sargent increasingly applied his great technical virtuosity to diverse subjects that captivated him as he traveled ceaselessly to picturesque locales throughout Europe and the United States, always in search of new subjects and inspiration.

He devoted half of his life – from 1890 until his death – to creating monumental and ambitious murals for public institutions in the United States. After 1900, Sargent embraced watercolor, which he had used since his early childhood, becoming one of the greatest masters of the art form, admired for his ability to transform even the most commonplace subject into studies of sparkling light, color and shadow with little apparent effort. When critics hailed his decorations for the Boston Public Library as an “American Sistine Chapel,” Sargent earned a position in the pantheon of great artists alongside the revered Michelangelo (1475-1564). At his death in 1925, critics mourned the passing of a “Modern ‘Old Master.’”

Sargent’s masterworks convey his powerful and intense interest in his subject. Stephanie L. Herdrich says that Sargent translated his enthusiasm for his subjects into his expressive painting technique and sensual admiration for textures and surfaces. Sargent continued to paint and travel until his death in 1925. Early in 1925, he said, “now the American things are done, and so, I suppose, I may die when I like.”

Sargent features 100 of his most celebrated paintings that represent all important aspects of his oeuvre – portraits, landscape and murals, both in oil and watercolor. Sargent is illustrated in a chronological manner with amazing details about the artist. Sargent is beautifully-manufactured and visually stunning. As assistant curator of American painting and sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Stephanie L. Herdrich has the right credentials to give perceptive analysis and new perspectives on Sargent’s life and works. Sargent should be a required read for everybody who is interested in Sargent’s life and works as well as painting in general. You can make your living room chic by putting it on your coffee table.

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