“John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits” Art Book Review (More Biography Than Art Book)

John Singer Sargent is one of my favourite painters/artists of all time, other than once wanting to learn how to box to go beat up a farmer that bothered him when he was outside one day (that’s the gist of the little known relatable story), he is known for being exceptionally skilled at painting a lot of portraits which he excelled in and his landscapes when he got sick of doing portraits for the wealthy.

The book in which his early portraits appear in, is the subject of this review. The portraits are from 1874-1889. His career formulative years so to speak.

In both my non-instructional and instructional art book reviews, I don’t really want to give a score/rating system to the books but have categories in which I feel are important for an artbook to succeed.

For both types of art books, I have certain categories to access them. Art books do take up a lot of space and if you don’t have a lot of space, its best to buy only the best of the best or what you yourself like.

The categories for non-instructional books are:

Overview: General, short, introduction of the book.

Inspiration: Does the book give a spark to light the artistic flames of creation or whatever, does the book inspire/make you want to draw and create your own things yourself.

Usefulness: How useful the book is, does the book have what you are looking for in it? does it actually have the thing you bought the book for in it?

Summary: Whether you should buy this book or not.

And now the book review:

Overview: John Singer Sargent: The Early Portraits complies all the portraits (that were found) from the old master John Singer Sargent from 1874-1889, separated by different subject matter like English Portraits, French Portraits, Early Portrait Sketches, etc. each portrait is accompanied by a paragraph or even composition of contextual text explaining how the portrait came about, who the subject of the portrait is, how are they connected to the painter, what is the history, etc.

Inspiration: To be fair, this book reads very much like a biography contextualized by portraits about Sargent’s early life and artistic growth, so there can be little inspiration to be found but still worthwhile ones like finding out he faces the same problems as any growing artist of the modern times and then, finding his audience, weathering art critics, etc.

Usefulness: Again, very much like a biography, so there can be very dry “useless” parts where a artist like me who want to find out about the techniques of Sargent (to be fair, a lot about this topic didn’t survive the ages anyway), will be left wanting, constantly reading about who the subject of the portrait is when I just want to find out what Sargent’s view of doing the work is. Making me skim through the descriptions of each portrait going “So…where’s the thinking behind it, does the sitter/subject have any input about how Sargent does his paintings”

Still, there are some interesting points of the subject of the portrait noting how Sargent does his work at times. But those are very few and far between. Historian artists/Art Historians who really want to learn about how Sargent navigated the waters of both English and French art worlds, who he painted and how they are connected to him, etc. etc. Would benefit more from this book. If a book where the portraits are the entire whole page and with very minimal text, that would be for the best for artists like me.

Summary: I did get this book as a birthday present so it was free so I am affected by that, in the sense that I didn’t have the pain of spending money on it, if you want faithful reproductions of the portraits rather than possible filtered/changed internet images of the portraits then sure why not, in my opinion…I am glad I got it for free and didn’t spend money on it?

In that aspect, its not a cheap artbook at all, and if I had spent the money and got what I have gotten…I would be half disappointed as I am not that interested in all the contextual text the book has to offer. And I do acknowledge that what I am asking for is a lot that doesn’t exist or very little exists (the thought process that Sargent has while painting) so I can’t really fault the book overmuch.

If you want to find out snippets of information about Sargent’s life through like secondary means of his subjects talking about him, then sure get this book. His art process, I think, literally only gets referenced off-hand less than 5 times. So…yeah. Manage your expectations accordingly.

If you liked what you read, please consider supporting me on Patreon (monthly) or ko-fi (one time donations).

Stay safe~!
JR

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