You might say that Boston was to John Singer Sargent what Florence was to Michelangelo: though the painter never lived there, many of his greatest patrons — Isabella Stewart Gardner, for one — did, and his visits to the city were constant. He held his first solo exhibition there in 1888, and it was on the eve of a trip there in 1925 that he died; the story that ran on the front page of the Boston Daily Globe the next day was headlined, “Boston Claims Sargent, Great Master, as her Own.”
It’s fitting then, that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), has finally created the John Singer Sargent Archive, making the city the official mecca for scholarship on the painter’s life and work. Its establishment was made possible by two large gifts of letters, photographs, and sketches from Sargent’s grand-nephew Richard Ormond and his wife, Leonée, and the art dealer Warren Adelson with his wife, MFA Overseer Jan Adelson.
For the past 30 years, Ormond and Adelson have been collaborating to compile a definitive list of Sargent’s entire output; with that project now coming to an end, they decided to give their collections to the MFA. “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,” Ormond explained in a statement.
Sargent had a special relationship with the MFA. It began in 1905, when the museum purchased its first oil painting from him, and continued in 1912, when the institution bought a whole suite of watercolors. Over the next decade, the MFA commissioned him to design several murals for its rotunda and colonnade. That patronage continued after his death: in 1925, it held a memorial exhibition for him; in 1956, a centenary celebration; and in 1999, a full retrospective. In turn, Sargent’s family has donated nearly 400 works to the museum over the years, and today the MFA boasts an entire gallery dedicated to his paintings, including his 1882 masterpiece “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.”
“Perhaps no painter has been more identified with the MFA than John Singer Sargent,” explained Director Malcolm Rogers in a statement. “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.”
The acquisition includes 100 letters that reveal aspects of his daily life, his social circle, and his business affairs — including 15 exchanged between Sargent and Claude Monet, whom he met in Paris around 1876 and admired throughout his life. In 1889, he wrote to the French Impressionist that he was “still haunted by the memory of your most recent paintings, full of unfathomable things.” There’s also one letter in which a certain Ms. Amélie Gautreau, the famed sitter for Sargent’s “Madame X,” describes the portrait as a “masterpiece.”
These fill out the museum’s already robust collection of correspondence related to Sargent’s watercolors and mural projects. “While some of the facts contained in these letters have been known, and the Monet letters have been published, there will be ample opportunity for scholars today and in years to come to make new connections and new discoveries,” Amelia Kantrovitz, a spokesperson for the MFA, told Hyperallergic.
The museum has also acquired drawings and photographs that feature Sargent — including caricatures by Max Beerbohm and Henry Tonks — and objects like a 19th-century oil lamp associated with him; he had borrowed it from the collector Charlotte Bywater to use in his 1900 portrait of her husband, Oxford University professor Ingram Bywater, and it also appears in his painting of Lady Russell.
All of these works will eventually all be accessible to scholars, students, and the public through the MFA’s Morse Study Room. They’ll go on view as well in the forthcoming exhibition (opening in July) Yours Sincerely, John S. Sargent.
“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,” Adelson explained in a statement. “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.”
Yours Sincerely, John S. Sargent opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Avenue of the Arts, 465 Huntington Ave, Boston), on July 25, 2015.