The new John Singer Sargent Archive at the Museum of Fine Arts includes a trove of the artist’s correspondence, both personal and professional.
“One of the things that caught me by surprise is how involved he was. You think that when you’re a really successful painter you’d have a secretary who handles all this stuff for you. He didn’t,” said Erica Hirshler, the MFA’s senior curator of American paintings. “The level of commitment and time to running his career shows you that becoming a successful and recognized painter depends on talent, but also a certain willingness to engage in the business side to promote yourself.”
For Richard Ormond, who along with Jan and Warren Adelson donated the archive materials, the letters will be a “quarrying ground” for future Sargent scholars.
Missing from the archive, however, are letters addressed to Sargent himself. The artist apparently destroyed most of his incoming correspondence, so the letters act as a sort of one-way mirror into the artist’s mind. “That’s the great missing thing,” said Ormond, who is Sargent’s grandnephew and himself a noted Sargent scholar. “He just got rid of it as he went along. He was somebody who was always looking forward. He didn’t dwell on the past.”
Sargent’s letters shed particular light on his friendship with Impressionist painter Claude Monet, a glimpse of which can be found in the excerpts below.
Sargent to Monet, March 11, 1887, from London
Sargent admits he’s concerned about his artistic output in England (where he moved following the highly critical reception to his portrait of “Madame X” at the 1884 Paris Salon). Still worried about his reputation in France, he fears his absence from that year’s Salon will be misinterpreted.
“Thank you for your kind letter and for the friendly advice. It is excellent and I am delighted to have this token of your friendship. . . . I have spent so much time on the same two canvasses this year thanks to this climate, that I barely have anything to exhibit. . . . I really must be presented or I have failed in my purpose of coming to this country. . . . I deeply regret that I shall have nothing for the Salon, because I really do not want to be forgotten in Paris. It would upset me if I were considered a poor idiot, who has ceased to exhibit there to make a statement. . . . I beg you, if you hear from our friends that I am a deserter or an ingrate, or that I am sulking, to contradict such nonsense.”
Sargent to Monet, July 1888, from London
Sargent’s affection for the French artist is made clear in quick notes like the one below.
“My dear Monet, When Pritchard was cutting my hair, he informed me that he was expecting you at any moment. I am delighted to hear it. I ran to Charing Cross but you were not on the 5 o’clock train. . . . I shall count on you for lunch tomorrow at 12:30. . . . My parents are spending the summer in England and we have taken a house in the country. You really should come and spend a few days with me. The countryside is charming, with a delightful little river and you would give me such great pleasure if you came. . . . You know that Whistler is living in my street now . . . . Write to me, Your devoted John S. Sargent”
Sargent to Monet, summer 1889, from Paris
Although Sargent never joined the Impressionists, he was a great admirer of the circle’s work — particularly that of Monet. In this case, the artist had recently traveled to Paris to see a Monet/Rodin retrospective at Galerie George Petit.
“I am still haunted by the memory of your most recent paintings, full of unfathomable things. . . . I am fully aware that your work of the moment is surpassing that of all others and nearing perfection.”
Sargent to Monet, summer 1891, from Paris
Just as Sargent was deeply involved in the business side of his career, so too did he facilitate sales of artworks for Monet. In this case, he advised the American collectors Charles and Elizabeth Fairchild, traveling to Giverny and accompanying Mrs. Fairchild to the gallery of the Impressionist art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel.
“My dear Monet, We came away from you full of enthusiasm despite the Bostonian air of those ladies. Mrs. Fairchild must have written to her husband to make him take two of them, one from Durand-Ruel and another from you. She left the following day without giving me precise instructions. On returning to Paris, we went to Durand and, yet again, she could not make up her mind. I insisted on the view of the sea seen from the top of a cliff with the shadows of clouds and she reserved it. She apparently returned to Durand’s the next morning and took Les Meules instead of the other. Two other Americans here are asking me about which of your pictures to choose. Decidedly you are in vogue over there.”
Sargent to Monet, December 1894, from London
Sargent asks after Monet’s latest paintings and updates him on the murals he’s painting for the Boston Public Library.
“My dear Monet, Believe it or not, but my thoughts often turn to you and to Giverny and I reproach myself for not having asked after you for such a long time, on account of my sheer hatred of spelling. I would be so pleased if you would bring me up to date on your life and your work. I hope that you and your family are happy and that painting is finally taking precedence over gardening. What have you done since the Rouen cathedral pictures, which I would have very much liked to have seen? My great screeds are progressing now and I hope to finish part of them this winter in the country. They will keep me busy for a few more years. I would very much like to show them to you because it has been a real struggle. Every day in London there is beautiful, absinthe-coloured weather. Is that not enough to lure you here? If you wanted to work in London you could stay at my studio, unless you come and pay me a little visit in the country. If you feel so inclined, be assured that I would be thrilled.”
Sargent to Monet, no date, from Paris
Sargent’s depth of feeling for the French artist is evident, as he worries that he’s somehow offended him.
“My dear Monet, I have just arrived and the pleasure of finding a letter from you was quickly mixed with gloomy speculation because to me it seems written to make me understand that you are offended. If it is because I have not written to you for a long time I beg you to pardon this oversight and to be indulgent. . . . I cannot dispel the idea that Madame [Lilla Cabot] Perry, who does not like me, may have tried to stir things up between us. In any event, I am worried and I beg you to write to me; it would be really painful for me to lose something of your friendship, which is precious to me.”