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Every Shade and Shadow: Seeing John Singer Sargent, Master Portrait Painter, under the Spotlight of American Newspapers

Suping Lu

Professor and Library Liaison, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Born on January 12, 1856, in Florence, Italy, to American parents, John Singer Sargent—one of the most important portrait painters of his time—lived all his life in Europe, including Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain. He did not touch U.S. soil until 1876 when he was 20. However, his U.S. citizenship and his ancestral roots in New England were sufficient enough for historians to classify him as a prominent American artist. More importantly, Sargent himself considered it an honor to be American; he remained an American citizen all his life, although he chose to live in Great Britain from 1884 until his death in 1925. In 1912 American newspapers reported that he would have received the British Order of Merit had he become a British subject. [1]

Largely due to his American identity, in particular after he attained distinction as a portrait painter of upper-class Europeans, United States newspapers continuously carried news about Sargent during his lifetime. They were, for the most part, generous with their praise of his achievements and success, regarding him as “a master of technique, and as one of the most brilliant artists of his day, with no equal among the men of his generation.”[2] When Sargent was elected a full member of the British Royal Academy in 1897, the Cleveland Plain Dealer went so far as telling its readers that “Sargent has beaten his master, Carolus Duran, on his own ground. He has surpassed Romney in a painter’s skill, while his vivacity is only equaled by Millais. He is almost worthy of the jealousy of Velasquez.”[3]

In 1899 when Sargent’s second solo exhibition in the United States was held in Boston, The Boston Journal introduced him with a review full of compliments:

As an artist and painter of portraits Sargent stands alone among modern painters. His art is cosmopolitan, or better, his own, but anyway it follows the track of no school. Some critics have called his work Spanish and compared him to Velasquez, but if he has any of the traits attributed to that great master they are his own, and will put him in relation to his period, in the same way it has placed Velasquez in his.

Sargent’s greatest power is in his technique: his ability to comprehend and reproduce the substance he sees with felicity of brushwork and color. To do this he does not have to depend on sudden inspiration or peculiar moods. It is the result of intelligence catholic in extent and easily adaptable to his needs, a mind full of eagerness and curiosity, and a sensitive taste of wide range.[4]

His father Fitzwilliam, a native of Gloucester, Massachusetts, attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, and practiced as an eye surgeon in Philadelphia, where he met and married in 1850 Mary Newbold Singer who was from a prominent local family and an accomplished artist in watercolor herself.[5]

Misfortune struck when the couple’s firstborn died in July 1853, resulting in a breakdown on the part of the wife. As a result, the family went to Florence, Italy, in the fall of 1854 for distraction and solace. Although their sojourn abroad was intended as a temporary arrangement, they prolonged the move, eventually within Europe from one country to another. They spent winters in Nice, Rome and Florence, and summers in Switzerland, France and Germany. Due to his parent’s itinerant lifestyle during his early years, John Sargent was educated partly in Italy and partly in Germany. In 1873 he enrolled at Florence’s Accademia delle Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts) to pursue his formal art education. Fluent in French, German, Italian and English, “his youth was passed among surroundings very different from those that effect the intellectual bent of most American boys who become painters and sculptors.”[6]

In May 1874 Sargent went to Paris with his father to investigate studios for the boy’s further art education. According to The Boston Journal, he was “bashfully asking the great favor—admission as a student in the studio of Carolus Duran.” [7] On May 30, 1874, he officially enrolled at the atelier of Emile Carolus-Duran, a youthful and talented portrait painter. Before long Sargent found himself a favorite student of his master.

Among the other things Duran taught this willing pupil were some important lessons given while they worked together in the Luxemburg. We know that Sargent loved his work, and that he loved Duran, for in one corner of the Luxemburg ceiling he introduced a portrait of the teacher. Men always emphasize work which they love with something of this kind. Had he disliked him he would have managed to have worked in in some manner a caricature of Duran, as Michelangelo pictured in his decoration of the Sistine Chapel a caricature of an obnoxious cardinal in that portion of the “Last Judgment” which indicates the hottest fires of the souls who are damned.[8]

During his study with Carolus-Duran between 1874 and 1878, Sargent’s personality left his fellow students an unforgettable impression:

The serious and earnest side of Sargent’s character always impressed his fellow students in those Latin Quarter days. He had no taste for dissipation though he was by no means puritanical. The lighter side of his temperament found satisfaction in music, the theater and literature and in the keen appreciation of everything in the tastes and amusements of the day that had a new or original flavor.[9]

Sargent demonstrated his remarkable talent at age 21 when he exhibited in 1877 at Paris Salon his first painting, a portrait of his young friend Frances Sherburne Ridley Watts. En Route pour la Pêche appeared at the Salon in May 1878; two months earlier its smaller version, entitled Fishing for Oysters at Cancale, was exhibited in New York at the Society of American Artists Exhibition. These paintings were praised by critics, but his reputation reached a new level when he painted his master Carolus-Duran, a portrait shown at the Salon in 1879. This work not only won him an Honorable Mention but also helped bring in a series of portrait commissions. It also marked the end of his apprenticeship with Carolus-Duran.

At age 23 Sargent was well established in Paris with his own studio. He worked profitably on his commissions which never seemed to stop coming, and he continued to have his paintings exhibited at the Salon: Dans les olivers à Capri (1879), Madame Edouard Pailleron and Fumée d'ambre gris (1880), Portrait of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron and Madame Ramón Subercaseaux, along with two watercolors of Venetian scenes (1881), El Jaleo and Lady with the Rose (1882), and The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1883). Enjoying his career as a painter and his growing reputation as a prominent portrait artist, Sargent was increasingly popular in Paris until May 1884 when his next portrait, Madame X, arrived at the Salon. As soon as the Salon opened on May 1, the portrait of Madame X

was greeted with jeers from the crowds that gathered around it. The subject was not identified, but Madame Gautreau was well-known to the society that frequented the Salon, and both she and her mother demanded that Sargent withdraw the painting because of the ridicule it provoked. Sargent refused. The painting had not been commissioned. He owned it, and was therefore free to exhibit it as he wished.[10]

Madame Gautreau, whose maiden name was Virginie Amélie Avegno (1859-1915), was raised on a Louisiana plantation. After her father was killed during the American Civil War, the young girl was taken to Paris by her mother who later arranged a marriage for her with prosperous banker Pierre Gautreau. Sargent was fascinated by her extraordinary look, her exquisite profile, her unusual purplish skin, and the sensuous and idle laxity of her gestures. He told a mutual friend that he would like to paint “an homage to her beauty.” After arrangements were made to have them introduced, Madame Gautreau agreed to pose for the painter. Sargent had intended to consolidate his position and enhance his reputation with her portrait. Instead, women who saw the painting jeered, “Viola ‘la belle!’ Oh, quelle horreur!,” while all of Paris made fun of Madame Gautreau. Art critics made an even louder fuss about the painting and the brouhaha went on for weeks.[11]

Among the criticism of Madame X was the claim that the “lady’s ear appeared blushing, and its reddish cast contrasted violently with the whitish, mask-like face.” Sargent’s rendering of Gautreau’s dress also caused offense, and there was “the problem of the extreme décolleté, which some considered indecent, and which prompted one anxious critic to wonder if the dress might be about to fall off.” In addition, in the original unamended version of the portrait seen by some critics, one of the shoulder straps was shown in a fallen state, which was considered scandalous. Sargent later repainted the strap to make it appear more respectable.[12]

With scandal surrounding Madame X, commissions were withdrawn and future ones appeared unlikely to Sargent. Convinced that Paris was no longer the location to advance his career, and also because of newly received English commissions, he left for England in June 1884. Although in 1885 he continued to exhibit The Misses Vickers and Mrs. Albert Vickers at the Salon, 1886 was the last time he submitted his painting to the Salon, where a portrait of Mrs. Burckhardt and Louise by him was exhibited that year. From 1884 forward, Sargent exhibited his works annually at the Royal Academy in London.

Sargent’s career in England at first appeared uncertain. The Madame X scandal still cast shadows on him, and the public considered him a radical painter. Nevertheless, his prospects improved markedly when in 1887 his Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose was exhibited. The painting was met with enthusiastic response from the British audience. In 1893, Sargent’s Mrs. Hugh Hammersley was exhibited at the New Gallery, while Lady Agnew of Lochnaw was displayed at the Royal Academy. Both paintings won wide critical praise and further established Sargent’s reputation in England. Because of these successes, he was elected an associate member of the Royal Academy, news of which was instantly reported in the U.S. on January 10, 1894:

John Singer Sargent, the American who has had the honor of being elected to associateship to the Royal Academy, is one of the most brilliant of native painters.…At the Royal Academy Mr. Sargent had this year a portrait of Lady Agnew, which was not one of his most successful works. At the New Gallery he showed a better example—a portrait of Mrs. Hugh Hammersley.[13]

More than two weeks later another newspaper published insights by the Herald’s London correspondent:

The election of Mr. John S. Sargent, the American painter, to be an associate of the Royal Academy, long predicted, was accomplished on Tuesday of this week. Public opinion in the end forced the hand of the academicians, or perhaps it should be said the public opinion of the art world outside the academy, and of one section inside. Popular, in one sense, Mr. Sargent is not. Acceptable to the average academician he certainly is not. Finally come to be known as a man who can paint, as a master of technique, and as one of the most brilliant artists of his day, with no equal among the men of his generation. He has never cared for mere story-telling on canvas. What interested him were the secrets of line, of color, of manipulation, and of effect. He is one of that small band of picture-makers who have set themselves, not to evade, but to confront and to overcome the difficulties of painting. He has shown the most extraordinary power, and a courage and confidence in himself which nothing but success could have justified.[14]

The St. Louis Republic reprinted a detailed description and analysis of Sargent’s portrait of the American actress Ada Rehan, which was exhibited in the New Gallery in London in 1895:

Among the large figure compositions there are some showing, besides mastery of technique, originality of conception and great imaginative power.

“A picture which will be variously judged but by none passed over,” says a private letter from London, “is J. S. Sargent’s great full-length portrait of Miss Ada Rehan. The popular American actress is here depicted in a décolleté evening dress of plain white satin holding half open in her hand a fan of white ostrich feathers.

“Her erect form is relieved against a background of old tapestry, with huge figures for breadth and mastery of execution in the modern mode. For authority and conciseness in statement, the picture has no rival in the New Gallery, and yet the beholder receives a little shock on his first acquaintance with it and will probably own that the impression left is that of a work not altogether sympathetic to him. Yet, profoundly as a Sargent always impresses—strongly attracting some and as strongly repelling others—it is never safe to judge it definitely on a first impression, in the end the gifted Anglo-American painter generally subjugates even the most unwilling.”[15]

While he was struggling to establish himself in England, with British patrons hesitant to sit for him, Sargent made two trips to the United States in 1887-88 and 1889-90. He held his first solo exhibition at the St. Botolph Club in Boston in early 1888, showing 22 of his paintings. Meanwhile, during the two trips, he garnered dozens of commissions from American upper society, and he painted a number of portraits in Boston and New York. The Jackson Daily Citizen described one such portrait, known as Beatrice Goelet, which was displayed in New York in May 1891:

There is a portrait at the exhibition of the Society of American Artists which attracts universal attention. It is a portrait of the little daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Goelet, of New York, and was painted by Mr. John S. Sargent, the young American who was long a pupil in Paris of Carolus Duran.…the painting, which artists declare is the best portrait ever painted by an American, and as good as anything ever done by Velasquez or any other master of portraiture. There is a distinguished style about the painting which arrests the attention at once and retains it.

One need not to have seen the subject of the portrait to be absolutely sure that the artist has caught that evanescent expression which usually baffles a portrait painter in his effort to catch a likeness. But this painting is much more than a likeness; it is a superb work of art, entirely apart from its value as a portrait. The artists in New York are enthusiastic about it, and unite in saying that it is the first time in our art history that any American ever painted a picture which made him the first man in the world in any branch of art.[16]

With Sargent’s reputation and popularity on the rise, the media’s interest in him was growing. American newspapers were no longer satisfied with just brief coverage about him and his portraits. On October 5, 1905, The Kansas City Star reprinted a detailed article about how Sargent arranged his portrait subjects into optimal poses and entertained sitters with suitable conversation:

At the first sitting he will spend perhaps three minutes in conversation with his sitter, all the while watching his subject closely.

As soon as his client is seated upon the throne he discusses the pose, not dictatorially, but suggesting and encouraging suggestion. Generally he waits for the subject to fall into some natural and unstrained attitude peculiar to himself or herself.

Having agreed upon the pose, more or less, he seizes his palette and a handful of brushes. These brushes are huge in size and look the implements of an artisan rather than of the greatest of living portrait painters.

Mixing on his palette some umber and yellow ochre, he advances toward his canvas, his right hand on a line with his eye. With rapid swishing strokes he daubs the canvas and then retreats, glancing rapidly from subject to canvas. Again he stretches out his brush hand, describing little imaginary circles in the air. His movements suggest a boxer sparring for an opening in his opponent’s defense. Like magic the daubs of paint begin to take shape until one suddenly realizes that every shade and shadow is indicated and a decided semblance of the sitter is upon the canvas.

Now he selects another brush, and, squeezing a tube or two, he mixes a new shade. He dashes at the canvas and dabs a flesh dot upon the spot where the forehead is to be. He steps back with great rapidity and looks at the effect. With head on one side and right hand gently fanning the air, his attitude reminds one of a boxer more than ever.

In fifteen minutes there is a recognizable semblance of the sitter.

All this time there is a rapid cross-fire of conversation….Mr. Sargent rather encourages his sitters to talk, believing that by this means he keeps an animated and natural expression of countenance. With remarkable skill he leads the conversation in directions suitable and interesting to his sitter. Every conceivable subject seems to interest him….

At the end of the first sitting the canvas shows a good likeness, and with second the hair and eyes are finished off. At the end of the third the hands are dealt with. The painting of hands is one of Mr. Sargent’s delights. He spends more time upon a good hand than upon any other part of a portrait.[17]

In its conclusion, the article quotes a writer in Everybody’s Magazine as saying, “He is a sort of Prince Charming of art—a trifle cold and worldly, perhaps, but phenomenally gifted. Yet in summing up his work it is obvious that these gifts are not gifts of the spirit, but gifts of sense—of eye and hand rather than of heart and mind.” (Ibid)

An excerpt from The Century Magazine, reprinted in the Colorado Springs Gazette, however, analyzed Sargent’s success in terms of his ability to observe, fathom into his subjects’ personality or mental state, and display his observations on canvases:

Mr. Sargent’s great success as a painter of portraits is no doubt due to the fact that, in addition to a technical equipment of the highest order, he possesses intuitive perceptions which enable him to grasp his sitters’ mental phases. His cultivated eye quickly determines the pose which naturally and easily harmonizes the physical side with the mental, and his artistic feeling dictates unerringly by what attributes of costume and surroundings the picture formed in his mind’s eye may be best presented on canvas. He rarely neglects to compose his picture—that is, not only to determine the lines of the figure, but also to fill the canvas and balance it. How much this part of the art counts for in portrait painting every intelligent painter knows, but how many fail to appreciate it, how many are satisfied with a haphazard arrangement, that suffices to bring the figure within the frame and leaves balance and symmetry to take care of themselves, may be seen in the numerous portraits in the current exhibitions, both at home and abroad, in which good intention and serious study are shorn of their force by careless composition.[18]

An article in the New Orleans Daily Picayune reprinted comments on Sargent’s personality, his music talent, and multilingual capability:

Sargent is a charming man. He plays remarkably well on the piano, and to hear him sit down and improvise is a treat for any musical person. He speaks German, French, Italian and Spanish fluently. Whatever help poverty may be to an artist, Sargent is proof that the highest attainment can be won without that stimulus, for he has always been comfortably off.[19]

Meanwhile, The Kansas City Star revealed some other aspects of Sargent’s life, including his marital status and financial well-being:

Sargent is so shy that if you say painting to him he blushes. He is the most modest of men and never refers either to himself or his work. His agony is reported to have been intolerable last year when various papers published a story to the effect that Sargent’s “little son” was to be page to the queen of the coronation. Sargent is unmarried and his confirmed bachelorhood is a matter of regret to many high born English ladies. Yet Mr. Sargent does not pose as a woman hater. Indeed, when ladies visit his studio on the rare occasions when he entertains, they are charmed by the simple cordiality of his welcome. But the artist never seeks the society of women. However, he doesn’t seek the society of much of anybody….

Sargent has three fads. He is passionately fond of music and plays piano well. He bicycles and keeps himself fit by daily rides about the environs of London. He collects pictures and his studio is filled with work of his contemporaries. His generosity to young artists is proverbial. He is a visitor in one of the art schools and takes keen pleasure in methods of teaching art.

No living artist makes such a fabulous income from his actual work in hand as Sargent. His fee is $5,000 a figure and last year he exhibited seventeen pictures, several of which included three figures. The seventeen included a number of paintings which, for reasons best known to himself, Mr. Sargent sent direct to their purchasers. Mr. Sargent invests his money immediately and spends comparatively little on himself. He lives at the studios and has a single man servant.[20]

From February 20 to March 13, 1899, Sargent’s second solo exhibition was held in Copley Hall and Allston Hall in the Grandman Studio Building in Boston where the Boston Art Students’ Association was situated.  On display were his completed portraits, studies of heads and miscellaneous sketches. On March 19, 1899, The Kansas City Star printed a lengthy column which was originally published in The New York Tribune. The article under the title, “Sargent the Modern: The Great American Portrait Painter’s Work Analyzed,” provided a detailed and in-depth analysis of Sargent’s works with thoughtful insights and criticism. While declaring that Sargent was a great portrait artist and his paintings brilliant, the article also pointed out what was lacking, along with the limitations in his works.

On entering the first impression one receives is of a great company of beautiful and distinguished personalities, bodied forth with the vividness, the reality, the brilliancy, that one might encounter upon some state occasion which had brought a number of men and women together in a ceremonial group. The scene, so conceived, is immensely modern. So are the portraits when examined in detail. There is nothing romantic in Sargent’s art, nor excepting in some of his portraits of children, is there any tenderness, that quality in painting which lies so near to romance. Imagination manifests itself in so many ways that we hesitate to deny its existence in work as penetrating as this work often is. Yet Mr. Sergeant seems, on the whole a painter of intelligence rather than imagination, a man who lakes his contemporaries exactly as he finds them and aims rather at the portrayal of their superficial aspects than at the unveiling of their souls. When his sitters reveal themselves it is their own fault, the painter happened to catch them off their guard and, without giving the matter any special thought, painted what would have been obvious to anyone. The cynicism which has been attributed to him does not seem to us to cover the ground at all. Mr. Sargent simply sees what every shrewd observer of modern types sees and puts it on canvas as one of the things that will contribute toward his effect.

The other things are form, color, design, and of these he would seem to think most. He treats them with such genius that we feel little sense of regret in remembering that Rembrandt dwelling upon the pathos in an old woman’s face could raise it to the plane of the universal, that Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” or Titian’s “Man with the Glove” or a portrait of Philip by Velasquez or one of Raphael’s Popes has a profound and inspiring significance. We recognize cheerfully that Mr. Sargent has no such magic, we simply put the modern artist on a pedestal of his own and laud him for painting, more brilliantly than any of his contemporaries can paint, in the way that most people at this end of the century prefer in their portraits.[21]

Then, the column went on with more specific criticism about what was missing in Sargent’s portraits:

We say in spite of one’s self because, as the reader has already perceived, Mr. Sargent is a master whose greatness is beyond question and who yet in some strange way is apt to leave even the eulogist baffled and uncertain. It is all so fresh in conception, so powerfully drawn, so original, so brilliant! What is it that is missing?

Imagination, tenderness, passion, deep human feeling—these things are, on the whole, absent. Yet none of them it might be urged in absolutely necessary in the special kind of portraiture to which Mr. Sargent is devoted. We may deplore their absence, but we can admire him for what he is. There is one quality, however, which it would seem that Mr. Sargent sorely needs. To describe it we may perhaps best borrow a word from the terminology of music. Mr. Sargent’s color is always striking, it is often beautiful, but it lacks timbre and is therefore curiously fleeting in its charm. The great colorists are, without exception, persuasive and haunting. (Ibid)

These analytical comments are remarkably insightful and objectively sharp in that, although Sargent was more admired than criticized during his lifetime, his fame waned rapidly after he died, mainly due to the criticism about the superficiality and other limitations indicated here of his paintings, and this article was written more than 26 years before his death.

In the 20th century Sargent became increasingly involved in American society. Even though he claimed he was not interested in English politics and even less so in American politics, he did get involved in American politics in his own way. Early in 1903, Sargent was in the United States for the installation of a section of his mural in the Boston Public Library. Afterwards he went in February to the White House, where President Theodore Roosevelt posed for him for a portrait which is still hung in the White House. Fourteen years later in June 1917, the governors of the National Gallery of Ireland presented Sargent with a proposal to paint a portrait for the U.S. wartime president Woodrow Wilson. Sargent accepted the proposal on the behalf of the Red Cross.[22]


The portrait was painted in October 1917, and on December 15, 1917, The Montgomery Advertiser ran a brief report which was originally published by the Washington Herald:

The greatest portrait painter of modern times has painted a portrait of America’s war President, and the canvas will rank among his masterpieces.

It is far and away above his painting of Roosevelt, which hangs in the White House. This new work of Sargent’s is a real brilliancy of art. It catches all of the elusive mobility of the Wilson face—all of the nuance and shade which are dulled by the average likeness of the President when not missed altogether. The concentration and vivacity of the steel gray eyes are there; the singular tautness of the mouth, the strength of the firm-set jaw, the high forehead….

Sargent has shown us the President’s character and personality in this portrait, one of the noblest of all his works. The Dublin National Gallery is fortunate to secure it. Washington is lucky because it will be on exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery for a month.[23]

The most prominent United States-based painting project in which Sargent was engaged is undoubtedly his large-scale murals for the Boston Public Library known as Triumph of Religion. As Sargent’s first major project for an American institution, this ambitious group of murals is by far his largest work in renaissance style, which is different from his regular portraits. In May 1890, when Sargent was in New York City for artist Edwin Austin Abbey’s wedding, a discussion was initiated between him and architects Charles Follen McKim and Stanford White concerning decorating the interiors of the Boston Public Library with murals. Sargent started working on the mural project in early 1892. He kept working on it during the first half of the year, and signed his first contract on January 18, 1893. The first part of the Triumph of Religion murals, the Hebraic end, was completed and installed before it was unveiled at a reception given by McKim on April 25, 1895.

Apparently, the Trustees of the Boston Public Library were pleased with the artist’s work. At the regular weekly meeting on May 16, 1895, the trustees adopted a resolution:

That the Trustees of the library are of the opinion that the work of Mr. Sargent already in position in the upper staircase hall of the library building demonstrates most clearly the necessity in the interest of the library and of the city at large of having the whole decoration of the hall completed by the same hand. They hope, therefore, that through those friends of the library and of art who appreciate what Mr. Sargent has already done, means may be provided to enable him to carry out his design for the decoration of the wall space over the staircase which will connect and bring into one scheme the decorations of the two ends of the hall that he is already engaged upon.[24]

The following years witnessed Sargent doing research in Italy for the Boston murals during the first two months of 1897 and working on the murals in the winter of 1898 and summer of 1899. In January 1903 Sargent sailed for Boston again to install the Christian end of the murals in the library. However, this section met with a storm of criticism:

That he should depart from the celestial method of treatment of the Deity that has marked the works of others who have gone before, and show the Godhead as three men, apparently past their prime, alike in face and posture, has called forth a number of hostile letters to the public press and a storm of criticism from hundreds of critics who think they can interpret the thoughts of the master painter and his ideas of Biblical story, the first story of Christianity.[25]


Many artists, on the other hand, disagreed with the hostile public. In an interview with The Boston Journal, Charles T. Pierre, an animal painter, stated,

Mr. Sargent knew what he was doing. There has been little or no criticism from the artists of note. There has been no criticism from the church. It all comes from those who are not worthy to touch the hem of his garments. When I looked upon his work in the Public Library it did not impress me as it must have impressed him. There are few of us who attempt his work. He is master of it, and he has spent much time in preparing for this one work, travelling far and wide in the world and learning from masters of other years their conception of the theme he would attempt. He has handled it in his own way, and it is not for those who do not understand to criticize. I know of no artists who attempt to assail Mr. Sargent’s work. (Ibid)

Clergymen also reframed from criticizing Sargent’s murals. Thomas Van Ness of the Second Church at Copley Square, while discussing the mural work, “did not show that Sargent’s conception of the Deity was in any way displeasing to the church or to himself.” (Ibid)

Even though Sargent was not intimidated out of the mural project by the criticism, he did not resume working on the project until a few years later. He worked on paintings for the vaults and lunettes in March 1909, and the following year worked on the east and west wall lunettes. On March 20, 1916, he sailed for the United States again to install what he had painted, arriving in Boston in early April.

Mr. Sargent has brought over the paintings not yet in place for the strip of ceiling at the crucifix end of the hall, and also those for the two panels on each end of that end of the hall. These two panels will each contain a Madonna, and on the strip of vaulting above there will be various subjects connected with the life of Christ. Some of these will be in relief.

Mr. Sargent has also brought over the six large lunettes which go into the penetrations of the ceilings. The subjects of these are connected with the Old and New Testament.[26]

While the installation of his paintings, which started in June and ended in November, was in progress at the Public Library, Sargent agreed to paint murals and do other decorations for the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston. He stayed in the United States, traveling around, and did not return to England until May 1918.

He travelled to the European battlefront in July 1918, and the trip provided him with inspiration to formulate his well-known war subject work, Gassed, which depicted soldiers blinded by mustard gas. While painting Gassed, he was working on murals known as Synagogue and Church for the Boston Public Library.

In May 1919, Sargent returned again to Boston, where he stayed until July 1920, working on decorations for the Museum of Fine Arts, as well as the installation at the Public Library. When Synagogue and Church were unveiled on October 5, the works instantly invited heated controversies, in particular protests about Synagogue from Boston’s Jewish communities. They claimed it was an affront to Judaism and was poorly conceived.

Rabbi M. M. Eichler, director of the Zionist bureau of New England who leads the protest against the picture, gives these reasons for objecting to it:

“Sargent represents the synagogue as a grim, austere, unwomanly woman, with blinded eyes and bent head, from which is falling a crown. In her hands is a broken scepter and she clutches to her breast what is supposed to be the tablets of the law. All above her is chaos and ruin.

“The face of the woman is not that of a Jewess. The Israel should have been pictured more properly as an old man with flowing beard. This conception suggests that the synagogue represents things that are broken and passed away. Not does the Jew believe that Judaism never died, but that it has retained its vitality and still maintains its influence.”[27]


An editorial published in October 1919 in the Jewish Daily News demanded that the “panels should be removed from the walls of the Boston Library because of its effect upon future generations. It will be accepted not so much as the fancy of an artist and a great artist, but as the correct presentation of a state of affairs, in reality non-existent.”[28] Complainants also included a Christian woman from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who sent a letter of protest to the editor of the Boston Sunday Herald, expressing her disappointment that after the Jews protested against Synagogue and asked for its removal, there was “no committee of prominent Christians making a similar demand for the removal of the other panel, which seems to me the more objectionable of the two, and constitutes as great an affront to the Christian conception of the church as ‘The Synagogue’ does to the Jewish idea of the Israelitish faith. To represent the church as supporting the broken, dying figure of the crucified Savior, instead of being herself sustained by her glorified and risen Lord is surely a complete reversal of the correct idea of the relation that exists between Jesus Christ and His Church, and is a gross misrepresentation of what the church has been inculcating for more than nineteen centuries.”[29]

Insisting no slur was intended on Sargent’s part and that the artist would not willingly give offense, Boston Public Library trustees maintained “that the picture is symbolical and is in harmony with the rules of art as pictured for centuries in Europe and that the present agitation against the picture is a ‘tempest in a teapot.’”[30] Nevertheless, resentment remained unabated. Due to the unpleasant situation created by the controversies over Synagogue and Church, Sargent decided not to continue with the mural project, leaving Triumphant of Religion at the library unfinished, though only one section short.

Sargent made another trip to the United States in January 1921 to work on decorations for the Museum of Fine Arts, including their installation. In November, he agreed to paint panels for Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University, and those panels were completed and installed the following November. He continued with the decoration project for the museum, painting panels in 1923 and murals in the following years. He eventually had the murals completed in March 1925, but sadly enough, after he had his passage to Boston arranged and held a farewell dinner in London with his sister Emily and other friends, he suffered a stroke at 3 a.m. on April 15, 1925, and died a few hours later.[31]

A memorial exhibition was opened on November 1, 1925, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, while memorial exhibitions were also held respectively at the Royal Academy in London and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1926.



[1] “American Artist Refused High Honor: Sargent Was Most Likely Possibility for Vacancy in British Order of Merit,” Fort Worth Star Telegram, December 27, 1912, p. 7.

[2] “The Royal Academy Honors: Sargent, the American Portrait Painter, Made an Associate,” The Daily Inter Ocean, January 26, 1894, p. 8.

[3] “New Honors for Sargent,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 15, 1897, p. 8.

[4]  “John S. Sargent: The Great Portrait Artist Whose Work Has Been on Exhibition in Boston,” Boston Sunday Journal, March 19, 1899, p. 44.

[5]  “John S. Sargent, First of American Portrait Painters, and His Work,” Boston Sunday Journal, March 1, 1903, p. 12.

[6] “Sargent, the Artist: One of the Most Prominent Figures in the Modern Art World,” Bismarck Daily Tribune, July 11, 1896, p. 3.

[7] John S. Sargent, First of American Portrait Painters, and His Work,” Boston Sunday Journal, March 1, 1903, p. 12.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Sargent, the Artist: One of the Most Prominent Figures in the Modern Art World,” p. 3.

[10] Hilton Kramer, “The Case of Madame’s Shoulder Strap,” New York Times, February 1, 1981, p. D23.

[11] Carter Ratcliff, “The Scandalous Madame X: A lavender lady whose portrait shocked Paris and almost ruined an artist,” Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1987, p. H22-23 and Hilton Kramer, “The Case of Madame’s Shoulder Strap,” p. D23.

[12] Hilton Kramer, “The Case of Madame’s Shoulder Strap,” pp. D23-27.

[13] “New Academy Associates,” The New York Herald, January 10, 1894, p. 9.

[14]  “The Royal Academy Honors: Sargent, the American Portrait Painter, Made an Associate,” The Daily Inter Ocean, January 26, 1894, p. 8.

[15] “Rehan in a London Gallery: Merits and Defects of Artist Sargent’s Portrait of the Actress,” The St. Louis Republic, May 28, 1895, p. 4.

[16]  “An Art Sensation: John S. Sargent’s Portrait of Beatrice and What Is Said of It,” Jackson Daily Citizen, May 9, 1891, p. 8.

[17] “John Sargent, R. H., At Work: How the Greatest Portrait Painter Poses A Beautiful Woman,” The Kansas City Star, October 5, 1905, p. 7.

[18]  “Sargent as a Portrait Painter,” Colorado Springs Gazette, June 12, 1896, p. 5.

[19]  “Sargent The Painter: Glimpse of His Personality and Home Life,” The Daily Picayune, December 21, 1902, p. 4.

[20] “Artists Who Flee from Work and More Wealth,” The Kansas City Star, August 9, 1903, Section Two, p. 1.

[21] “Sargent the Modern: The Great American Portrait Painter’s Work Analyzed,” The Kansas City Star, March 19, 1899, p. 19.

[22] “Sargent to Paint Wilson,” Aberdeen Daily News, June 8, 1917, p. 1.

[23] “The Wilson of John Singer Sargent,” The Montgomery Advertiser, December 15, 1917, p. 4.

[24] “Must Complete It,” The Boston Journal, May 22, 1895, p. 1.

[25] “Why did Sargent Put Shoes on God’s Feet? Criticism of Great Artist’s Work in Public Library,” The Boston Journal, March 15, 1903, p. 5.

[26] “Artist Sargent Is Interviewed by Proxy Only,” The Boston Journal, April 11, 1916, p. 8.

[27] “By-Products of the Press,” Oregonian, October 21, 1919, p. 8.

[28] “The Sargent Panel,” Jewish Daily News, October 22, 1919, p. 2.

[29] Gertrude James, “Christians Should Protest, Too,” The Sunday Herald (Boston), October 26, 1919, p. D6.

[30] “By-Products of the Press,” Oregonian, October 21, 1919, p. 8.

[31] “Death Is Sudden for Sargent, Noted Artist,” The Dallas Morning News, April 16, 1925, p. 1.

Born and raised in China, Suping Lu graduated from Nanjing Teachers University before coming to the United States for further education at the Ohio University and the University of South Carolina. He joined the University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty in 1994. He is the author of They Were in Nanjing: The Nanjing Massacre Witnessed by American and British Nationals (2004), and the editor of Minnie Vautrin’s Nanjing: Diaries and Correspondence, 1937-38 (2008) and A Mission under Duress: The Nanjing Massacre and Post-Massacre Social Conditions Documented by American Diplomats (2010). He is currently working on his upcoming book, A Dark Page in History: The Nanjing Massacre and Post-Massacre Social Conditions Recorded in British Diplomatic Dispatches, Admiralty Documents, and U.S. Naval Intelligence Reports.

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