While John Singer Sargent was undoubtedly one of the most significant portraitists of the fin-de-siècle glitterati, both in America and abroad, the artist’s more casual depictions of his friends and colleagues—the fellow creative minds and intelligentsia of the era—represent a meaningful segment of his oeuvre. Robert Brough, the dignified and thoughtful figure represented in the present work, was a talented, up-and-coming Scottish painter, who came to be acquainted with Sargent when Brough established his artistic practice on Tite Street in London's Chelsea neighborhood around 1900. Tite Street was a major center of activity for London artists at the turn of the century, and Sargent, a well-known and successful painter by this time whose own studio was located not far from Brough’s, served as a mentor for the younger artist, who came to emulate many of Sargent’s techniques in his own work.
Brough’s talent as a painter, in particular his skill as a portraitist, earned him a place as a Royal Academician, but his promising career was cut short when, on January 27, 1905, he was fatally injured in a train accident. Hearing the news of the tragic incident, Sargent immediately rushed to his friend’s bedside at a hospital in Sheffield, arriving just in time to say his goodbyes. In the catalogue for an exhibition of Brough’s work following his death, Sargent wrote of the artist: “[Brough] was blessed with the gift of what corresponds to a pure and melodious voice. The developing of this natural gift into a perfectly supple and practiced medium seems to be the direction in which his progress can best be traced when one follows it through the interesting series of portraits that are now gathered together in tribute to his memory.” (as quoted in E. Charteris, John Sargent, New York, 1927, p. 200) Not long after the accident, Sargent presented his portrait of Robert Brough to the Chelsea Arts Club in London.