Richard Ormond is one of the world’s leading authorities on the work of John Singer Sargent. He did start off with a slight advantage: He’s Sargent’s grand-nephew, grandson of the artist’s youngest sister, Violet. But he’s not just a Sargent scholar; he’s been the deputy director of the National Portrait Gallery and the director of the National Maritime Museum, both in London. And the more than 30 books he’s written include volumes on Edwin Landseer, Frederic Leighton, and Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Thursday, Ormond comes to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to discuss Sargent’s “El Jaleo,’’ which hangs in the museum’s Spanish Cloister. He spoke about that painting, and about growing up in the Sargent family, by phone from London.
Q. Did you grow up thinking you would be an artist or a curator or a scholar?
A. No, I didn’t at all, when I left university [Oxford], I really hadn’t a clue. And then a job came up in a museum, and I thought, “Well, that sounds quite interesting, why not give it a try,’’ and that was the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery. I started, in 1962, on a salary of about $800 a year. And I was given the opportunity there of doing my first Sargent exhibition, because they knew I was related. The chief of paintings thought, “Well, we must let young Richard Ormond have his head.’’ It was very exciting, at the age of 24, I was given the chance of organizing quite a big exhibition, around a hundred works. So that’s how I started off. But it was really rather by chance than by design.
Q. Your father, Conrad, would have known his uncle John.
A. Absolutely, yes. There were four surviving members of his generation whom I knew well: one aunt and two uncles and my father. And they’d all known Sargent extremely well. They weren’t always terribly forthcoming, that generation, but they did from time to time talk about the circle of friends, Henry James, Vernon Lee, etc.
And there was my grandmother, of course, Violet. She lived in a flat in Carlisle Mansions, in Chelsea, hung with her brother’s work. I always found it a rather gloomy flat. So one grew up surrounded by Sargent’s paintings. The uncles and my father all had his works. You couldn’t get away from the fact that there’d been a famous painter in the family.
I think Sargent was not someone who found it easy to unbend. I mean, they were probably quite in awe of him. He was large physically, he didn’t have much small talk. He adored Rose-Marie, the aunt who was killed in the First World War, in the church in Paris. He cared a lot about the family, he took a great deal of interest in them all, and he helped whenever he was asked to. But he was not someone who found it easy to show his feelings. And he wasn’t somebody to talk about his feelings, either.
Q. Can you say a little about “El Jaleo’’ and the French connection?
A. It’s one of the masterpieces of his Paris years, and it’s got all the modernist credentials. At the Salon of 1882, “El Jaleo’’ and Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’’ were the two pictures everybody was talking about. And I think, interestingly, that Sargent was talked of as Manet’s heir, he was seen to be highly progressive, avant-garde, if you like.
It’s also looking back to Velázquez, it’s looking back to Goya, “The Third of May 1808.’’ And I think he planned it very carefully. There are lots of drawings for it, but when you actually get to the picture itself, he’s got it all in his head and puts it down very very fast. There’s none of the labored work that you might associate with a grand Salon picture of this type. That’s what’s so breathtaking: He’s doing this kind of modern-day subject, but he’s doing it in a very uninhibited sort of way, and challenging the rules all the way.
Q. Henry James called “El Jaleo’’ a “perversion of life’’ and suggested that it “sins in its ugliness.’’
A. A lot of people might have thought like Henry James, but of course Henry James is always very quizzical, isn’t he? You know, he never quite takes things straight on, there’s always a kind of coming at things sideways. But I don’t think this was one of Sargent’s paintings that he particularly admired. And maybe because it was so flamboyant.
Q. Do some people still consider Sargent a minor artist?
A. I think so, yes. I mean, a lot of art critics tend to be rather left-wing, and the fact that Sargent is painting the great and the good and all that gets under their skin. When I was young, Sargent had kind of disappeared below the horizon, particularly in Britain, less so in America. He was just regarded as a sort of rather superficial portrait painter. And it was that airbrushing out by the whole modernist lot that seemed to me a travesty. He’s a big painter, there’s no question that he’s a major figure, and you can’t just simply write him out because he doesn’t paint like Cézanne. I think there’s much more parallel between Sargent and Cézanne than some Cézanne scholars would necessarily want to admit.
Q. But he’s always been held in high esteem in Boston.
A. Boston was his other home, really, and I think it’s very significant that he regarded his greatest contribution to the art of his time as his public art, and his public art was only done in Boston. And Bostonian patronage was extremely important to him, particularly in his early days, when he was finding it quite a struggle, after the “Madame Gautreau’’ debacle. I think Boston has always revered Sargent in a way that in England certainly was not the case. I remember having to apologize for Sargent because he was held in such low esteem, back in the ’60s. So it’s marvelous to see him back where he belongs.