By 1900, John Singer Sargent’s notoriety as a portrait painter had earned him a ceaseless flow of commissions from prominent families in both England and the United States. But he grew tired of the demands and restrictions of these grand manner portraits, and began spending part of each year in Switzerland, Italy, Austria, and Spain. On these trips, Sargent completed a number of vibrant plein-air oil sketches. Valdemosa, Majorca was painted during the autumn of 1908, when the artist accompanied his sister Emily and her friend on a trip to Valdemosa, a small town in Majorca, part of the Balearic Isles off the east coast of Spain.
This expressive study reflects Sargent’s assertion that “enormous views and huge skies do not tempt me.” Avoiding the broad, panoramic views of conventional landscape compositions, the artist instead used vibrant colors and loose brushstrokes to depict a small patch of rocky ground tangled with vegetation. With its freedom of subject matter and technique, Valdemosa, Majorca: Thistles and Herbage on a Hillside, reveals a different side of the artist best known for his formal society portraits.
Born in 1856 in Florence to expatriate American parents, John Singer Sargent received his first formal art instruction at Rome in 1868, and then sporadically attended the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence between 1870 and 1873. In 1874 he was accepted at the Paris atelier of the portraitist Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran, and attended drawing classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He began to exhibit at the Salon in 1877. Over the next few years several experiences had a significant impact on Sargent's artistic development: during a trip to Spain in 1879 he copied paintings by Velasquez at the Prado, in 1880 he visited Belgium and Holland, where he copied works by Hals, and in 1881 he met Whistler in Venice. The scandal engendered by Sargent's daring portrait of Madame Gautreau at the Salon of 1884 precipitated his departure to London the following year. In 1887 he visited and worked with Monet at Giverny, and made his first professional trip to America. In 1897 he was elected an academician at the National Academy of Design, New York, and the Royal Academy of Art, London, and he was made a member of the Legion of Honor in France.
By the turn of the century Sargent was recognized as the most acclaimed international society portraitist of the Edwardian era, and his clientele consisted of the most affluent, aristocratic, and fashionable people of his time. Noted for his dazzling technical virtuosity and painterly technique, he influenced an entire generation of American portraitists. Sargent resented the limitations of portraiture, however, and from the beginning of his exceptionally successful career took every opportunity to paint a wide range of genre subjects. Around 1906 he abandoned portraiture and worked primarily in watercolor, a medium in which he was extraordinarily gifted. Although an expatriate who lived in London, Sargent was committed to America's cultural development and executed important mural decorations for the Boston Public Library (1890-1919), the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1916-1925), and Harvard University's Widener Library (1921-1922). He died in London in 1925.
Source: NGA Systematic Catalogue