John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925) may well be the last great artist in the academic tradition. He was an American, born in Florence in Italy and who spent much of his life in Europe. He was prolific, painting hundreds of oil paintings and thousands of watercolours and sketches. Painting alongside the Impressionists (and sometimes referred to as one) he has clearly incorporated their sense of shimmering light. He copes well with sunlight and shadow and the balance between general impression and focus on particular detail (especially in regard to foliage). His compositional style is affected, again like the Impressionists, by Japanese landscape prints, and so he generally provides a focus in the foreground, large and near to the viewer. Although, as I mentioned, he is often grouped with the Impressionists, in my opinion he is superior because he retains that balance of focus and soft edge that one associates with a baroque style (the Impressionist tending towards an even blurr).
The spontaneity of his watercolours is wonderful and because the medium forces him to summarise far more, it gives us an insight into how he looked at what was in front of him.
Interestingly, Sargent had no faith at all, to my knowledge. He is one of those people who just seems to have been naturally open to inspiration in his painting. God inspires whomsoever He pleases!
Sargent was a very popular society portrait painter and his focus on the personalities of those he paints always comes through. His more conventional portraits, incidentally are wonderful too, and you can see why he was in demand, but that’s for another day.