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John Singer Sargent Letters

An inventory of his collection at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: KM
Date: Feb 1989

Biographical History

Born in Florence, Italy, the son of an American physician, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) studied painting there and in Paris, where he first gained attention at the Salon with Madame X (1884). Most of his work, such as Lord Ribblesdale (1902, National Gallery, London), was, however, executed in England from 1885, where he became the most fashionable and elegant portrait painter of his age. To this period belongs his well-known Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-86, Tate, London). In 1907 he exhibited with the English artists at the Venice Biennale. His early painting shows a French Impressionist influence, but Spanish art had a more lasting effect and Carmencita is perhaps the best example of this. Visiting the United States constantly, he worked on portraits and series of decorative paintings for public buildings, such as The Evolution of Religion for Boston Library (1889-c.1915). He also painted landscapes, especially in later life, and often in watercolour. He was an official war artist in World War I, producing Gassed (1818, Imperial War Museum, London) and other works. [From Chambers Biographical Dictionary (1997)]

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The John Singer Sargent Letters are a collection of 45 outgoing items that were written between 1895 and 1923, several of which are undated. Most of the letters originate from Sargent's Tite St. address in Chelsea, however a few were written during Sargent's sojourn in America while he was working at the Boston Public Library. Much of the correspondence is of a personal nature and suggests, as does this item to (Mrs.?) Lovett, the many demands upon the artist's time:

I made a great many promises at a time when I thought my work at the library would soon be over and would leave me a margin of time. But it is still going on, and it may be impossible for me now to fulfill the promises I have made.

Among the letters are responses to social invitations (Mrs. Fuller-Maitland, Lady Jeanne, Mrs. Mallaby, Mrs. Page, Miss Patten), and discussions concerning arrangements for sittings for various of Sargent's patrons (Mrs. Colin Hunter, Hall Walker).

In addition there are a number of business letters as well as several items in which Sargent discusses his work. Among the business correspondence are items concerning the price of Sargent's drawings (Wilfrid Ashley); arrangements for a painting being shipped to Brussels for exhibition (Edward Poynter); and a discussion of Sargent's lack of enthusiasm for participating in a Paris exhibition because of the difficulty of assembling his best work together (Walter Berry). Also included in the correspondence are discussions about painting technique (W. Sergeant Kendall), and Sargent's preparations for his painting of the Madonna, for which he solicited the assistance of Alice Meynell.

The most personal of Sargent's letters are those to George Henschel and Miss Maxse. Among the series to the latter is this revelation concerning the attitude of the artist toward his work:

Please don't ask me to paint anybody! I have taken [on] portraits ... to such a degree that my principal employment in life is to dodge them ... You have given me a chance for which I am grateful by not mentioning who it is that has this morbid wish to be painted ...
I hope you won't be shocked by this glimpse into the abyss.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Subject Headings


Ashley, Wilfrid William, 1860-1927.
Barnett, Lawrence.
Berry, Walter Van Rensselaer, 1859-1927.
Fuller-Maitland, John Alexander, Mrs.
Henschel, George, 1850-1934.
Hunter, Colin, Mrs.
Kendall, William Sergeant, 1869-1938.
Marchesi, Blanche, 1864-1940.
Meynell, Alice, 1847-1922.
Mitchell, S. Weir, (Silas Weir), 1829-1914.
Morgan, John Pierpont, Mrs.
Poynter, Edward John, Sir, bart., 1836-1919.
Sargent, John Singer, 1856-1925.
Walker, Hall, Mrs.


Painters, United States.
Painting, American.
Painting, Modern, 19th century.
Painting, Modern, 20th century.
Portrait painters, United States.
Portrait painting, 19th century.
Portrait painting, 20th century.

Genres and Forms




Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

John Singer Sargent Letters,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

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