Painter Comes to Life Through Letters, Photographs, Paintings and Sketches in New Exhibition

BOSTON, MA (June 3, 2015)—The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), has announced the establishment of the John Singer Sargent Archive, formed with a recent gift of letters, photographs and sketches that document the artist’s life and world, given by Richard Ormond (Sargent’s grand-nephew) and his wife Leonée, and Warren Adelson together with his wife, MFA Overseer Jan Adelson. The MFA is renowned for its collection of Sargent works, and the artist considered Boston to be his American home. With its holdings of paintings—including his masterpiece, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882)—in addition to sculpture, watercolors, drawings and murals by the artist, the MFA has the most comprehensive collection of Sargent’s art anywhere. The addition of the Sargent Archive makes the MFA the chief center for Sargent scholarship, bringing the artist’s era to life and enhancing understanding of the man and his work. In celebration of the gift, the exhibition Yours Sincerely, John S. Sargent (July 25–November 15, 2015) will feature nearly 60 objects in the Edward and Nancy Roberts Family Gallery. Among the correspondence on view, 11 letters from Sargent to Claude Monet highlight his lifelong friendship and admiration for the French Impressionist master. Another letter, carefully written in a neat round hand, describes a certain portrait as a “masterpiece”—it is signed Amélie Gautreau, an appreciative sitter best known today as Madame X. Caricatures of Sargent by friends and fellow artists Henry Tonks and Max Beerbohm add a dose of humor to the typical view of this hard-working artist, while sketches, props and photographs of his studios illuminate his craft.  Exhibition sponsored by Northern Trust.

Many of the items in the exhibition are from a gift of 128 objects and special collections materials donated to the MFA by Jan and Warren Adelson in December 2014. Others works come from the collection of Richard and Leonée Ormond. More objects and archival materials are promised by the Adelsons and the Ormonds to be given to the MFA over time, and other donors may also contribute to the Archive in the future. The establishment of the Sargent Archive continues a tradition of giving begun in 1928-1929,  when Sargent’s sisters, Miss Emily Sargent and Mrs. Francis Ormond (Richard Ormond’s grandmother), donated 363 drawings by Sargent to the MFA in memory of their brother.  

“Perhaps no painter has been more identified with the MFA than John Singer Sargent,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director at the MFA. “Of all the highlights of my time at the MFA, some of the greatest have been renewing the magnificent Sargent murals in 1999 and providing a beautiful new gallery for his ‘Boit Daughters’ in our Art of the Americas Wing in 2010. Now, as I near the end of my tenure at the Museum, it is wonderful to find a ‘home’ for the peripatetic Sargent here in Boston.”

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was born in Italy, trained in Paris, and lived in London, but his relationship with Boston and New England was constant. The MFA bought its first oil by Sargent in 1905, a suite of watercolors in 1912, and commissioned him to decorate the Museum’s Rotunda (1916) and Colonnade (1922). The MFA has a gallery dedicated to the artist’s paintings, including the portrait The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, which was given to the Museum by the Boit sisters in honor of their father—a friend of Sargent’s. But behind his renowned paintings lies another legacy. For more than 30 years, Warren Adelson and Richard Ormond have collaborated on Sargent’s catalogue raisonné—the definitive listing of his entire oeuvre. As that project comes to an end, the donors decided to give their collections to the MFA. The majority of the Archive consists of works on paper—watercolors, sketches, vintage photographs and manuscripts—which will be accessible to scholars, students and the public over time through the MFA’s Morse Study Room and online at mfa.org.  The gift also includes props from his studios, memorabilia, and other materials relating to the artist. The Adelsons and the Ormonds will also donate the John Singer Sargent catalogue raisonné archive to the MFA, including its database and research files.

The donors considered the MFA the ideal home for the Sargent Archive.  “Why Boston? Aside from my sentimental prejudice for my home town, clearly Boston was an important city to Sargent. His first one-man show was in Boston at the St. Botolph Club in 1888, and it launched his career both critically and financially,” said Warren Adelson, art dealer, scholar and sponsor of the catalogue raisonné project.  “Boston launched my career on Newbury Street about 90 years later, and the MFA was where I first saw Sargent’s work when I was a teenager. It stuck in my mind and has ever since.”

“Boston has the largest concentration of works by Sargent anywhere in the world, and it is home to his three great mural schemes,” writes Richard Ormond. “There is no institution better placed than the MFA to take charge of the Archive, to make its riches more widely known and to sustain the world of Sargent scholarship”.

The exhibition Yours Sincerely, John S. Sargent is organized by theme, including “Sargent in London,” Sargent in Paris,” “Sargent and Monet,” “Seeing Sargent,” “Sargent and World War One” and “Sargent at the MFA.” Each section explores a different aspect of Sargent’s life and career, and includes works from the Archive paired with objects from the MFA’s collection.

“This is a great moment for Boston, for the MFA, and for Sargent scholarship,” said Erica Hirshler, the MFA’s Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings, Art of the Americas. “To be able to tell the stories behind the painter’s achievements, to explore Sargent’s engagement with the business side of being an artist, and to hold this material for the benefit of future generations is an enormous gift. We also hope that the Archive will continue to grow, as relevant materials come to light.” 

In the exhibition, Sargent’s world in Paris, London and Boston comes to life through photos, an oil lamp that appeared in two of his portraits and a letter from Madame X written in 1883. The letter is a “smoking gun” of Sargent scholarship, revealing that the subject of Sargent’s controversial painting, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1883–84), now in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, first adored the likeness that Sargent made of her. “Mr. Sargent has made a masterpiece of the portrait,” she wrote to a friend. Sargent met French painter Claude Monet (1840-1926) in Paris around 1876 and the two men remained in contact throughout their lives. Although Sargent never exhibited with the Impressionist group, he did explore their style, especially during the mid 1880s, when he painted with Monet in Giverny. Sargent admired Monet profoundly—he owned four of his landscapes and in 1889 wrote to Monet that he was “still haunted by the memory of your most recent paintings, full of unfathomable things.” Fifteen letters from Sargent to Monet are part of the Archive, and 11 are in the exhibition.

 World War I marked an important time in Sargent’s career. In 1918, he was appointed an official war artist, along with his friend and fellow painter Henry Tonks; they spent four months at the front in northern France. The scene Sargent witnessed there of soldiers blinded by mustard gas became the subject of one of his most moving and monumental images, Gassed, commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee and now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London. However, Sargent’s original government commission suggested he portray cooperation between British and American troops, and a number of notes from the Archive detail his plans for such a work, including The Road (1918), an oil sketch acquired by the MFA in 1919. A letter to the MFA’s director at the time, Arthur Fairbanks, makes it clear that the painter hadn’t given much thought to the future of his small canvas. “Many thanks for letting me know that the trustees have bought the war sketch,” he wrote. “I think ‘The Road’ would be a good name for it.”

By the 20th century, Sargent had become a celebrity in London art circles and inevitably became the subject of both portraiture and caricature. One of his friends was Max Beerbohm, who depicted Sargent over 20 times. Tonks also fixed his eye on Sargent, recording him in the act of painting in Switzerland and during World War I. Several important Pictorialist photographers also made portraits of Sargent, among them Sidney Carter, a native of Montreal who was one of the youngest members of Alfred Stieglitz’s avant-garde group, the Photo-Secession. Carter exhibited his likeness of Sargent in London in 1921, and it was published in Vanity Fair in 1924.

All three of Sargent’s decorative cycles for public buildings are in the Boston area—at the MFA, the Boston Public Library and Harvard University’s Widener Library—and a number of objects in the Archive offer an inside look at these iconic works. A photograph of Sargent’s Fulham Road studio (about 1895) in London shows two of the paintings created for the Boston Public Library—the lunette Israelites Oppressed and the barrel vault The Pagan Gods.  Plaster maquettes in the exhibition were studies for Sargent’s bas-reliefs at the MFA, part of a decorative cycle of allegorical murals and sculpture adorning the Museum’s Rotunda and Colonnade. This installation was the culmination of Sargent’s career and remains one of the Museum’s greatest treasures.

Sargent and Boston

Born in Europe to American parents, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) lived his life as an expatriate. However, he maintained many ties to Boston and its citizens. Sargent held his first solo exhibition in the city in 1888 at the St. Botolph Club, and painted many of the city’s most prominent individuals—collectors like Isabella Stewart Gardner as well as other arts patrons and members of society, painters and musicians. The MFA bought and commissioned his work during his lifetime, and over the years has presented major exhibitions, including a memorial exhibition in 1925, a centenary celebration in 1956, his first comprehensive retrospective in 1999 and the first display dedicated solely to his watercolor paintings in 2013. The MFA’s Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Gallery, located on the second floor of the Art of the Americas Wing, is dedicated to Sargent’s art, featuring approximately 25 of his renowned paintings. As Sargent put it, describing the disposition of his watercolors, he would be pleased to think “that their home would be in Boston, where so many other things of mine belong.”

Sargent died in his sleep in London in April 1925, on the eve of his departure for Boston to oversee the installation of the final murals he created for the MFA. It was front-page news in the Boston Daily Globe, which also declared, “Boston Claims Sargent, Great Master, as her Own.”

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, which includes an estimated 500,000 objects. The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–4:45 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–9:45 pm Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and youths age 17 and younger on weekdays after 3 pm, weekends, and Boston Public Schools holidays; otherwise $10. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25). MFA Members are always admitted for free. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For more information, visit mfa.org or call 617.267.9300. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115.

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