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John Singer Sargent: The man, the artist, the legend

Get to know this famous painter who called Boston his American home and has left his mark on some of Boston’s most iconic landmarks.

An image of one of the John-Singer-Sargent murals located inside the Boston Public Library.

You can find a collection of murals inside the Boston Public Library.

Photo by Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth

Get your canvas ready — we’re drawing the connections to how a European artist completed multiple major works of art at iconic buildings and for individuals across the city of Boston.

This is where our story begins. John Singer Sargent was born in Florence in 1856 and grew up to study painting. He would go on to become England’s leading portrait painter and along the way made several visits to the US.

In 1888, Sargent’s first solo exhibition in Boston was at the St. Botolph Club. He painted many notable personalities, including society leaders, musicians, and art collectors like Isabella Stewart Gardner.

As an avid art collector, Isabella commissioned and purchased art from him over the years. Isabella sat for a portrait with Sargent in January of 1888. Fun fact: She was said to have rejected eight renderings of her face until it met her expectations. Today, the portrait is on display in the Gothic Room at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.


John Singer Sargent painting Mrs. Fiske Warren and her daughter in Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Gothic Room from the early 1900s.

Photo by David Mathews courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Sargent’s work can also be found at the Boston Public Library. He worked on the collection for the third floor of the McKim Building for 29 years. While Sargent was mostly known for his portraits, he went another route on this commission.

The central theme was “Triumph of Religion” and the imagery features a wide variety of belief systems, from early Egyptian and Assyrian to Judaism and Christianity. He painted his mural panels in England then brought them to Boston in four phases. However, Sargent died in 1925, leaving the final panel along the east wall unfinished. Today, visitors of the library can still see the the blank panel.

The Museum of Fine Arts has long supported his craft. The Rotunda project, which began in 1916, features Sargent’s work. After his death, the museum hosted many exhibitions, including a memorial exhibition and the centenary celebration in 1956, and opened a dedicated gallery with ~25 of Sargent’s paintings. Bonus: Save the date for the latest exhibition Fashioned By Sargent,opening to public on Oct. 8.

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