An American born and raised in Italy, John Singer Sargent went on to become a well-known portrait painter of the rich and famous at the turn of the twentieth century. He worked in manic amounts: his oeuvre includes around nine hundred oil paintings and more than two thousand watercolours, without counting his sketched and charcoal drawings.
After growing up in Italy, Sargent initially applied to the Academy of Florence. The school was reorganising at the time and instead Sargent moved to Paris to study with Carolus-Duran (1837-1917). He entered the École des Beaux-Arts, in 1874. He won a silver prize in his drawing and anatomy classes there. He shared a studio with James Carroll Beckwith, who became both a valuable friend and his primary connection with the American artists abroad – but he spent most of his time alone, drawing and painting in museums and outside.
In 1879, Sargent exhibited at the Paris Salon with a painting of his teacher, Carolus-Duran. He was only twenty-three at the time, and this success both served as a tribute to his teacher and an advertisement for portrait commissions. By the 1880s, he was a regular exhibitor. Most of his works were full-length portraits of women including Madame Edouard Pailleron in 1880 and Madame Ramón Subercaseaux in 1881, clad in finery and received with positive critical responses. In 1884 he caused a controversy by exhibiting Portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of New York. The work is now considered one of his best works, and was the artist’s personal favourite at the time. At the time, however, the untoward forwardness of the portrait and the reactions it caused when it was unveiled at the Salon in Paris was likely the reason for Sargent’s decision to move to London afterwards.
He thrived in London as he had in Paris. He exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887, with the Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. This large piece painted on site of two young girls lighting lanterns in an English garden was produced in the Cotswolds village of Broadway, on the same High Street as Trinity House gallery. The painting was immediately purchased by the Tate Gallery, where it is still exhibited today.