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MFA receives trove of John Singer Sargent letters, memorabilia

Richard Ormond is one of the donors who gifted the Sargent letters and memorabilia to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Ormond is a prominent Sargent scholar and the artist’s grandnephew. (Hannah McKay for The Boston Globe)
Richard Ormond is one of the donors who gifted the Sargent letters and memorabilia to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Ormond is a prominent Sargent scholar and the artist’s grandnephew. (Hannah McKay for The Boston Globe)Hannah McKay for The Boston Globe

In the spring of 1925, the famed painter John Singer Sargent was preparing to travel from London to Boston. His plan? To oversee the final installation of murals he'd created for the Museum of Fine Arts — mythic works that would join similar paintings at the Boston Public Library and Harvard's Widener Library, cementing the artist's relationship with the city he loved.

But Sargent never made the trip: He died in his sleep before embarking on the voyage.

Now, some 90 years later, Sargent is returning to Boston — this time for good. The MFA said Tuesday that it has acquired an enormous trove of Sargent letters, sketches, and other memorabilia, which it is using to establish the John Singer Sargent Archive. The definitive scholarly resource will complement the museum's already wide-ranging collection of approximately 500 Sargent paintings, sculptures, watercolors, drawings, and murals.

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A letter included in the collection of John Singer Sargent materials being gifted to the Museum of Fine Arts.
A letter included in the collection of John Singer Sargent materials being gifted to the Museum of Fine Arts.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

"The MFA is the place where you can find Mr. Sargent," MFA director Malcolm Rogers said. "Boston is Sargent's city. He had exhibitions here, he painted commissions here, many of his friends were here, so it's a natural thing for the MFA, which already has a fantastic collection of Sargent material, to add to that."

The gift comes from Richard and Leonée Ormond and from Warren and Jan Adelson, who for nearly four decades have been compiling the collection. With others, Richard Ormond and Warren Adelson also are completing a nine-volume catalogue raisonné of Sargent's work, a comprehensive listing of his known oils and watercolors. The donors said they chose the MFA for the gift, which contains nearly 5,000 items, because of the museum's commitment to establish a study center for Sargent.

"We weren't getting any younger, and what was going to happen to all these materials? We didn't want it to die a quiet death in aspic," said Richard Ormond, 76, a prominent Sargent scholar and the artist's grandnephew, speaking by phone from England. "The thought of Boston? [We] sort of fell on each other."

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Warren Adelson, a New York-based art dealer, said the collectors had wondered for years where to house the sprawling archive, which contains correspondence with friends, family heirlooms, photographs and caricatures of the artist, items bought at auction, and scholarly resources compiled by others. Adelson said they decided on the MFA after meeting with Rogers, who worked with Ormond at the National Portrait Gallery in London in the 1980s.

"It took a while to gain some understanding of just what this creature was we'd created, and what zoo would be the best to house it," said Adelson, 73. "When Malcolm Rogers described his plans for a study center in the [Forsyth Institute] building across the way, that really gave us a thought of how Boston could be a place not only to house it, but also carry on with the academic research and at the same time show the material and preserve it."

A caricature of John Singer Sargent by Henry Tonks.
A caricature of John Singer Sargent by Henry Tonks.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The MFA purchased the Forsyth Institute in 2007, aiming to eventually transform it into a broad-based research center for students, scholars, and the public. "I said to [Ormond], 'This would make a wonderful start to the museum's vision of creating a study center,' " recalled Rogers, who will step down as director at the end of July.

While the Sargent papers and other items will arrive incrementally over the next decade or so, the first 128 pieces have already entered the museum, including many of Sargent's letters to Claude Monet, caricatures by Henry Tonks and Max Beerbohm, and photographs of the artist's studio. The items will be included in "Yours Sincerely, John S. Sargent," a show featuring a portion of the archive along with other Sargent-related items that opens July 25 at the MFA.

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"Publicly, he comes across as a dignified and maybe a little bit distant personality," said Erica Hirshler, the MFA's senior curator of American paintings, who is organizing the show. "But in the letters he's so much more of a jovial, kidding, lively personality."

By turns wry, sensitive, and fiercely loyal, the Sargent that emerges from the letters is that of an artist deeply involved in the business side of his career and candid about some of his portrait subjects. Born to American parents in Florence in 1856, Sargent lived in Paris before moving to England. Best known for his portraits, he had deep ties to Boston.

In one letter about including Sargent's portrait of Mrs. Charles E. Inches (now in the MFA's collection) in a show, Sargent writes, "Don't bother about Mrs. Inches — she rather makes a condition about my going to see if there is not something wrong about her nose — & I haven't time."

In another, Sargent, who famously disavowed portraiture later in his career, humorously dismisses future commissions, writing in 1924: "Please choke off any future applicants for oil paughtraits and say if necessary that I am a physical and nervous wreck and not allowed to read letters."

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A letter from Sargent to Monet.
A letter from Sargent to Monet.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Equally striking is Sargent's devotion to Monet, a contemporary in the late 1800s whom he deeply admired as an artist and friend. His excitement at seeing the Impressionist is clear as he dashes off a note upon hearing that Monet is coming to London. "When Pritchard was cutting my hair, he informed me that he was expecting you at any moment," Sargent writes in an urgent scrawl. "I am delighted to hear it. I ran to Charing Cross but you were not on the 5 o'clock train."

In another letter, Sargent worries he might have insulted Monet, writing, "I cannot dispel the idea that Madame [Lilla Cabot] Perry, who does not like me, may have tried to stir things up between us. . . . 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."

The archive also adds dimension to pivotal moments in Sargent's career, such as when he exhibited a portrait of Amélie Gautreau — now known as "Madame X" — at the 1884 Paris Salon.

Though now renowned, the painting was a rare misstep for Sargent, who portrayed the luminescent Gautreau in profile. Sheathed in a black dress, the Creole beauty exuded a full-throated sensuality as a diamond strap fell from her shoulder.

The masterpiece was savaged by critics, who considered it scandalous, and Gautreau and her mother reportedly begged the artist to remove it from the exhibition. But Sargent refused, later keeping the portrait in his studio for the next 20 years, where he righted the falling strap.

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"It got hugely negative reviews," said Hirshler, noting that Sargent soon decamped for London. "His commissions basically dried up."

But as one correspondence in the archive makes clear, Gautreau's distaste for the painting came only after its public opprobrium. In a letter Sargent wrote to a mutual friend the summer before the Salon, Gautreau added a note: "Mr. Sargent has made a masterpiece of the portrait," she exclaimed. "I want to write to tell you because I am sure he won't say it."


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay..