Born on this day in fashion history: John Singer Sargent

Sargent in his Paris studio, c. 1884

Happy birthday to American artist John Singer Sargent, born on this day in 1856. Sargent was born in Florence, Italy to American parents who nurtured his artistic inclinations, sending him to art school first in Florence and than in Paris, where he would study under the respected portraitist Carolus-Duran. Sargent would become one of the most sought-after portrait painters of his era, painting an international cast of wealthy–and fashionable–clientele from Europe and America.

His most famous portrait Madame X, featured below, was also his most controversial. Exhibited in 1884 at an exhibition of the prestigious Paris Salons, Sargent’s portrait drew harsh criticism both for its artistic style and the daring, low-cut dress of the subject. Despite Sargent’s intention for the painting’s subject to remain anonymous, it was not long before the society beauty, Madame Pierre Gautreau, was identified. Her mother reportedly begged Sargent to remove the painting from exhibition but he refused, arguing that he painted Gautreau “exactly as she was dressed, that nothing could be said of the canvas worse than had been said in print of her appearance.”[i]

Sargent’s impeccable attention to detail make his paintings a great resource for any fashion history enthusiast. I’ve selected some of my favorite Sargent portraits below for your viewing pleasure.

Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1883–84

Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes, 1897

Lady with the Rose (Charlotte Louise Burckhardt), 1882

Lady with the Rose (Charlotte Louise Burckhardt), 1882

[i] R. Ormond and E. Kilmurra, John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits, (Yale University Press, 1998), 114.

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