Cape Cod Art Preservation Society
TOP 10

The Ten Best Paintings of John Singer Sargent

These paintings are not listed in any particular order, and you may or may not agree with our choices.

But hopefully our comments will at least give some explanation about our thinking.
Padre Sebastiano

Padre Sebastiano

This painting feels like Pure Art for Sargent. Unlike an aristocrat shelling out big bucks for a portrait, this is a painting of someone who is most certainly broke. Sebastiano was a botanist and the painting portrays him making notes about some plants on his desk. The expression on his face is full of life, and the minimal detail of the background puts all of the focus on the foreground (look at the strap of that bag hanging on the wall!)
Smoke of Ambergris

Smoke of Ambergris

How many different shades of white can be on one canvas. Much more difficult than it may seem, giving each white section its own distinctive hue while remaining accurate is tricky business. The posing of the woman, the large space at the top of the canvas, the splash of color on the rug - this is the very definition of artistic masterpiece.
Girl Fishing

Girl Fishing

So much to love about this painting. First of all, the color palette. Those blues that make up the water are insane. It's a real risk to go with such vivid colors in a mostly realistic painting, but Sargent pulls it off perfectly. Like the best of Maxfield Parrish, the cornflower hues give the painting a dreamy quality. Sargent's strokes are bold and confident, embuing the painting with just the right amount of Impressionistic heaviness while maintaining the sharpness and contrast of realism. Like all of his greatest pieces, Girl Fishing truly cannot be classified. It's just Sargent. An interviewer once asked Lou Reed what kind of music he made. His answer? "I make Lou Reed music." This is a Sargent painting.
Oyster Gatherers of Cancale

Oyster Gatherers of Cancale

Again, Sargent paid the bills with his portraits of rich people, but you really get the sense that his deepest love came through when he was painting what he felt like painting. The movement in this painting is spectacular. The two women in the middle caught up in conversation, the little boy rolling up his pants, the suggestions of people in the distance. And the clouds! They seem effortless. And again, his choices of color - the blues of the sky and water are more than real. Colors that penetrate to something basic within us.
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw

Like the Mona Lisa, this is no mere portrait. Sargent did countless portraits, but this is something different. The look on her face, the detail of her features, the almost wild brushstrokes the further you get away from the subject: this is a tour-de-force. When you look closely at the chair and corners of the painting, it's almost as if a madman painted it. But then you see the intricate care given to Lady Agnew's eyes, mouth and left hand. Sargent is screaming "I could have made the whole thing photorealistic...this is by design!"
Self-Portrait

Self-Portrait

It had to have been tempting for someone with Sargent's ability to make himself look perfect when doing a self-portrait...he certainly had the skill. But look at the beard alone in this painting - it's obvious that he loaded up his brush heavily with paint and used the minimum number of strokes to get his coverage. It's a bold choice that could have elicited ridicule (and maybe it did), but how can you fault a self-portrait? Obviously it's how he saw himself. One of the great self-portraits ever made.
The Brook

The Brook

Whenever you look at this painting you can't help but think about Sargent's friendship with Monet. Would he have ever created something like this if he hadn't met the great Impressionist? Doubtful. But Sargent flourishes with his own brand of Impressionism. The girl at the center of the painting still has a fairly realistic face (wouldn't be Sargent otherwise), but the free brushstrokes on the rest of the canvas are thrilling. Their dresses almost morph into the ground around them; the shadows in the background blend rock, water and tree; the light dancing in a distant clearing. This painting is just so alive.
Portrait of Madame X

Portrait of Madame X

This painting caused a bit of a hubbub because of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau's bare shoulders. But what makes this painting an all-time classic masterpiece is the composition. With its brown hues and black dress, all the focus is on the model. Her stance is elegant and imperious. Especially like the weird way she twisted her right arm. It also helps that this painting is huge.
A Street in Venice

A Street in Venice

This is a painter's painting. You can imagine casual museum visitors strolling right past this canvas without giving it much attention. But you can also see painters standing and studying this thing for hours on end. The colors are so subdued and disciplined. The perspective is wonderfully claustrophobic. The guy looking at the girl; the girl looking at us. The lighted building at the end of the alley. Just amazing.
Nonchaloir (Repose)

Nonchaloir (Repose)

Maybe Sargent's greatest work. It encapsulates everything that made John Singer Sargent a true master. At first blush it seems photorealistic. But when you focus on that skirt - it's an entire art lesson in itself: the color choices, the bold strokes, the confidence. It's completely obvious that this was a craftsman 100% in control of his skills. There is zero doubt that this painting came out exactly as Sargent intended. In 1911, when this was painted, photography was becoming ever more sophisticated. So who needs painters when all you have to do is click a button? Sargent was making a clear statement that no machine could ever do this.