Yale’s series of books cataloguing the complete paintings of John Singer Sargent nears completion with the release of the penultimate volume in August 2014. The project has been a magnificent endeavour – the first volume in the series was published in 1998 – and with the completion of Volume VIII we are taking the opportunity to reprise the series as a whole, as well as to explore the new book. Yale is also delighted to present an interview with Richard Ormond, Sargent’s great nephew and co-author of the series. Richard was deputy director of the National Portrait Gallery and director of the National Maritime Museum for many years, but has been working on the catalogue raisonné full-time since 2000. Ormond has a life-long passion for his subject, and this conversation ranges from Venice to the Rocky Mountains, Wagner to Velazquez, and even includes a treasured personal memory of a meeting with T. S. Eliot.
Interview with Richard Ormond
How difficult has it been to sustain the Sargent Catalogue Raisonné project?
More than one answer to that question! Of course over nine volumes it’s about sustaining one’s energy and that of a co-author, because it is a daunting prospect. Cataloging over 2000 pictures, there are moments when you think ‘Why did I get involved in this?’.
On the other hand we’ve had tremendous support from our patron in America, Warren Adelson, and his co-director Elizabeth Oustinoff, who have been funding a lot of the costs of the catalogue. They’ve also provided a lot of research help and they look after the database, which is absolutely critical, so we’ve had very good support from them, and from our publishers and designers. In a certain sense once you get lauched on a project like this you realise it’s a life sentence. But here we are at volume 8, with one more to go, so we feel the end is in sight.
Did you anticipate how much of an undertaking it would be when you began?
Not really, early in the project it’s very detailed work: tracking all these pictures, and researching them, doing the provenance, writing something interesting, it’s like a huge mapping, mapping the artist’s oeuvre, and once you do that you begin to see how all the bits fit together and how to begin to make sense of it.
So it’s definitely been a worthwhile project, for you?
Oh yes, for me it’s been wonderful because I was in museums for a long time. I’ve been working at this full time since 2000, but before that I was in a full time museum job so obviously the amount of time I could devote was limited. My co-author (Elaine Kilmurray) carried more of the weight in the early years, but since 2000 it’s been fantastic to have a project like this to get one’s teeth into!
Have you uncovered anything revelatory – things that were unknown, or that surprised you – during the course of the series?
Yes, doing something like this you uncover all sorts of pictures that have been hidden away or overlooked or not seen. Particularly some of the early works which really haven’t been much researched. Its been revealing doing this because you place the well known pictures, but also scholars have said to me ‘My goodness there were so many things in the catalogue I didn’t know existed!’, and things of course just turn up out of the blue, which is always exciting. Some really major pictures were found. I’m thinking particularly of a great full length of a Spanish dancer that was the first try out for El Jaleo, his great Flamenco picture, that turned up out of the blue and we were all suspicious, because one is always suspicious when things just turn up but the provenance was that it had been left behind somewhere and the caretaker of the place had taken it on and it came down through that family, and it was an absolutely genuine picture.
I’ve found as well, that going on site to where Sargent had painted, and discovering things about the actual places where he painted, both identifying actual sites and pining down exact viewpoints, seeing what he did put in and what he didn’t put in, often leads to new revelations.
Going round Venice, as we did for a week, with a marvellous old Venetian waterman, you began to see the city, just in snatches and fragments, as he did, and you realise that everything he did in Venice was painted from the water. Again you felt you were really in his footsteps, sometimes you’re not sure if he’s the ghost and you’re tracking him down or whether you’re the ghost looking in on him. There have been these moments where you make connections and you realise that two pictures you’ve found references for are one and the same. All sorts of things get sorted out, and I think really going through his exhibition history helped place things, because sometimes all that can be found for a painting description is ‘olive grove’, its only when you really get down to actually getting the reviews out that you can pinpoint exactly which picture it is. The dating of Sargent is quite difficult so you need those pins, like exhibitions, which pinpoint dates so you can establish which ‘olive grove’ you’re talking about and then you can begin to associate other works around that. All those reviews have a fascinating amount of stuff on exactly which pictures he was exhibiting and that really lets you get a proper grip on chronology.
It’s like detective work in a way?
Oh yes, I always say that I’d be very good at tracking missing persons because it’s the same as missing pictures: you don’t take no for an answer and if you can’t find it that way you go round. Of course sometimes you come up against people who are determined you won’t look at their pictures, it’s rare but it does happen.
It’s an obsessive task because it’s all in the minutiae, and if people begin to feel that you are not reliable, the review isn’t page 280, its actually page 208, people lose faith, so you have to be as accurate as you possibly can and as comprehensive as you can be. Catalogue raisonné are never definitive, there are always new things that come to light, mistakes, new research: there’s never any final answer. So you have to accept your book is flawed, but at least you put down a marker.
Do you have a favourite volume?
The most difficult one, and the one I feel proudest of, was volume IV (which won several awards), the early subject paintings and landscapes. It was the most sustained work of scholarship that my co-author and I did and it was the least known part of Sargent’s oeuvre. I found it very rewarding, unearthing so many things and documenting them for the first time. I loved, for instance, that he went to Spain to copy Velazquez, that this was one of his main reasons for going there. Of course, he also painted some wonderful landscapes, but it was wonderful to discover in the Prado the lists of copyists for particular days and find out exactly on which days he copied which pictures and then to track all the copies he made after Velazquez. To know that, that sort of detail is very… it’s probably of no interest of anybody else but it’s very satisfying when you can pinpoint things like that.
Don’t you think it is of interest, because it grounds these pictures within a landscape?
Yes, that’s what ones trying to do, to find a context for the paintings and we’ve tried to do that always, with our introductions to the volumes and the sections, to paint a picture not only of what he was doing, but what other artists were doing. He went to Spain to copy Velazquez, who had been rediscovered in mid-19th century and was an absolute icon to the younger artists; they looked on him as a sort of proto-modernist. So part of the work is about not just slinging one picture after another but to group them, make sense of them and see them in the context of not only his life and career but also in the wider context of the art world of his time.
You have spoken before of going to your Grandmother’s house in Chelsea as a child and being surrounded by Sargent paintings. Do you have any memories of particular paintings which stood out or which you had a special connection with?
There was one picture, when I was small, which always fascinated me. It was on the turn of the corridor, a full-length painting of a Javanese dancing girl, which he painted in Paris at the Exposition Universelle in 1889, and she just had this extraordinary costume, very exotic, and a headdress and upturned hands, and she’s swaying in the dance and I just thought she was so mysterious and wonderful and lovely. So I always remembered that picture.
The house was full of lots of other wonderful paintings, but of course being a small child, one wasn’t as artistically minded then! My grandmother was quite a formidable lady and as a little boy I found it difficult to keep still. I was always quite pleased to be allowed to get down and go and see her cheerful cockney housekeeper in the kitchen, where I didn’t have to be on my best behavior.
Did you ever accidentally damage any of those Sargents?
No – we did damage – I’m afraid to say, some non-Sargents that were rather disregarded. I think they came from my mother’s side of the family. We may have thrown darts at them… Anyway we’d never have dared to do anything like that with a Sargent. I always remember going up to see my grandmother and my mother telling me that I was to remember the man who we’d gone up in the lift with because that was T.S. Eliot, who lived in the flat below my grandmother. I used to get the lift with T.S. Eliot, how about that?
Rose-Marie Ormond [Sargent’s niece] features prominently in the new volume, and you have called her Sargent’s favourite Alpine model. Why do you think that was?
She was the one more commonly used. He would go off to the Alps, and he often took with him rather exotic costumes and he would dress the girls up. I often think that when they were having breakfast in the hotel, the young nieces must have hoped sometimes that Sargent’s eye wouldn’t fall on you, otherwise you’d be in for modeling all day! Rose-Marie does the star turn and I think Sargent had special feelings for her. She was very beautiful, but she was also a very selfless character, one of those people who think more of others than themselves. Beauties can often be rather arrogant and full of themselves but she was quite the reverse, very modest and generous-spirited, and I think he responded to that. Rose-Marie was brought up by her French grandmother and although she did speak English, she doesn’t write in English entirely colloquially and I think she must have spoken English with an accent. But Sargent wrote to her frequently and when she was killed in the First World War, on Good Friday when the church she was attending was shelled, he was devastated and said she was the most beautiful and wonderful girl who had ever lived. So it’s a rather poignant story, her husband had been killed in the opening offensive, so she was a war widow for four years and then she was killed.
And she was quite young?
Yes, and her husband was a brilliant French medieval art historian. They’re buried out in a marvellous grave that’s looked after by the commune above Soissons, very near where he fell. A sort of golden couple, but then so many brilliant young men were wiped out in that war, although it was less common for a beautiful girl to also be killed.
In a sense, Sargent and his circle represent a lost way of life for artists, travelling around Europe – going wherever inspiration led them. Do you think there is still space and opportunity for artists to live in such a manner?
Yes. A lot of artists today still travel across Europe to paint, but that elegant way of life – I mean Sargent used to go for months, to the Alps and to Venice or Corfu or Italy, living in hotels with parties of friends and family (I think he was never happy unless he had a paintbrush in his hand) – that elegant way of life has left us. And they all met in Venice, he was part of a social world there of people that would take palazzos for the summer or autumn, and when he would go to Majorca or Corfu the local artists would hold a banquet in his honour. Wherever he went he was a celebrity and there was that social aspect to his travels. I suppose that ended with the war: he never went back to Europe after 1914. After the war he worked tremendously hard on the murals in Boston, it’s interesting that he goes off to New England in the summer to paint instead of Europe: he never goes back on painting expeditions.
Do you think that was a consequence of Rose-Marie’s death, or a more general sense of loss regarding what had happened in Europe?
I think the world he knew pre-war had gone and he spent more time in Boston than he did in London in the last seven years of his life. He was determined to finish his new murals and that was his focus, he thought the public art was his most important artistic contribution. I think the impetus to go to Europe, and the circumstances, just wasn’t there anymore for him.
Sargent was known for his love of music. Do you believe there is a link between his favourite music and his painting style?
I think music deeply affected him. His whole aesthetic was bound up with music, the things he appreciated in it were the things he appreciated in art. But I don’t think, unlike Whistler or some of the other painters, there’s an actual attempt to make painting like music: a correlation between colour and musical sounds. Wagner was tremendously important to him, was someone he deeply admired. He is often thought to be just a visual artist but he was very widely read as well – I think books and music are part of that, they deepen his art.
For example, if you were someone who was pro-Wagner at that time you were progressive; you were an aesthete, you felt that Wagner was someone who was renewing music. Whereas, for the traditionalists, Wagner was an affront to the values of classical music. There was a real dividing line. And Sargent, he’s part of this world, mixed up with Proust and French Aestheticism, he loves the Pre-Raphaelites, which is a totally different style of art but he loves that feeling. And he loves Baudelaire and Flaubert, Debussy, he loves progressive movements and his art is very progressive, he never stops, he’s about the material of art, the paint surface, what he can do to paint, as the modernists were. I often think he’s not so far from Cézanne and Van Gogh. I think the music informs that aesthetic impulse.
But I think it’s difficult to make any slick comparisons, to say that this particular piece of music inspired this painting, I don’t think it works like that. I think it’s more about his aesthetic sense of what is important, on a wider cultural level. The exhibition I’m involved in at the National Portrait Gallery next year is all about Sargent’s involvement with the other arts: literature, music and the theatre. It really shows that he was immersed in other art forms; he was very cultivated and cultured. It’s part of his cosmopolitanism; the urbane quality in his portraiture is part of that width and breadth of culture that he enjoyed.
You’ve described retracing Sargent’s steps in Europe – an ‘adventure’ which involved hopping over walls, resourceful gondoliers and ‘going places you shouldn’t’. Do you have any favourite stories?
We’ve been stuck in the mud above the Sea of Galilee with night falling, because we had to try and get a shot exactly where Sargent stood. On that Palestine trip I remember beating across the desert on a sort of vague track, with an armed escort, although I think that was more about the Bedouin, who tend to help themselves to things, rather than terrorists. We went to Mar Saba as well, a remote Byzantine monastery that Sargent painted, getting there was fun… Its always an adventure, as I mentioned before, going round Venice for a week in a gondola was fascinating, we were always taken to very good lunches by Chacha, our taximan!
I’ve been to the Rocky Mountains, for example I remember slogging down to the twin waterfalls in Yoho national park. I remember arriving and there was a little place you could get coffee, and I said to my wife ‘I don’t think we should get any’, after hiking in it seemed very self-indulgent, but she said we should and it was lucky we did because this particular waterfall was very famous but we needed to get the exact point where Sargent painted. So we showed it to the woman and she said ‘Oh I know that spot’ and she said ‘Bill you take them up’ and Bill escorted us to the exact spot. So it was a lucky cup of coffee.
But I’ve tracked Sargent almost everywhere, I’ve been to Corfu, Majorca, Palestine… and you meet people everywhere who want to help you on your quest, you get your photos out and everyone pores over them and says ‘ooh I think that might be so-and-so lake’ so you rely on local knowledge. It’s the people you meet, the adventures you have.
Every holiday usually has a Sargent component: I’m searching for this or that. I’m off shortly to the Tyrol for Volume IX, I was there in the 1960’s but I want to check up on a few things. What’s encouraging is that most of the places haven’t changed. Italian villas and gardens stay much the same, Venice stays much the same. The landscape doesn’t change so it’s all there waiting for you to discover it. It’s interesting: I remember in Sicily there are a famous group of Greek temples, very early. Sargent painted the landscape there, and if he’d moved his easel 5 degrees to the right he could have included them. But he didn’t. I think he wasn’t interested, he wasn’t painting tourist views, it was the rolling landscape going down to the sea that fascinated him, and the temples would have been a distraction, would have turned it into a kind of art that he wasn’t doing. He didn’t want to do that. Often when going to see these places it’s what he didn’t paint.
I’ve been in the Alps too, and sometimes you’ll go out to try and find something and the clouds are down, you can’t see anything and then suddenly the clouds part and you see the view. It’s all about angles in the mountains: if you see the mountain one way it’s one thing, but if you move round a few degrees you see the painting. So, that’s how we pinned down an awful lot of those mountain views, and then put in how they are now, I think people like that, past and present. It’s always been good fun, like a holiday with a point to it.
Have you ever been on an actual holiday, and suddenly realised you’re near a Sargent location?
Yes, that has happened! You suddenly realise you’re in Sargent country, but then very often you haven’t got the pictures and references. I remember on one occasion I had to get my co-author to email me images, I was in Switzerland or Italy.
Do you paint at all?
No! I’ve never aspired to paint; I’m just a sort of parasite really, feeding off another. In a way, sometimes it’s just as well I don’t paint, because I’d be disconcerted by working on someone so gifted. I always go and look at Sargent’s pictures with artists because they have a quite different take on them. His mastery of the craft was exceptional, his eye and hand were so fluid and so masterful, so I would feel, if I were a painter, how woefully inadequate I was. But it’s nice that Sargent has always been very admired by artists, who have a special feeling for him because of their understanding of the kind of challenges and difficulties he faced. I sometimes think Sargent deliberately set himself the most difficult kind of visual phenomena, with light effects and textures and unbelievable complexity, just so he could set himself a challenge. Each picture he put out, there’s always a new challenge, there’s no formula. He’s not painting repetitive scenes, he never says, ‘These mountains are going down well with the market, I’ll just settle in and paint lots of these’. He just doesn’t do that; he’s always out there pushing the boundaries of his art.
Volume 8: Figures and landscapes, 1908-1913
In this volume we are transported to the artists most beloved locations, often with his friends and family, and always with a sense of fresh focus. By 1908 Sargent had made the decision to close down his internationally successful portrait practice so that he could concentrate on landscapes and murals and his later work demonstrates a determination to reinvigorate his own artistic interests as well as an eagerness to explore new possibilities. Sargent returns to subjects that always held deep personal connections and artistic challenges: from mountains, streams and quarries to architecture, boats and quays. At the same time his ability to humanise, to capture and penetrate character remains fully intact and this, along with his inventive compositional approach, with its unusual perspectives and near abstract surface patterns, presents a highly personal artistic vision. Throughout the body of work Sargent takes things familiar to him – the Alps he had known since childhood, the family and friends he used as models – and utilises them to create some of his finest late pieces, such as the enigmatic processional study Cashmere, used as the cover illustration.
John Singer Sargent: The Complete Paintings
Yale’s John Singer Sargent Catalogue Raisonné brings together nearly 600 portraits, some 1,600 subject pictures and landscapes, and three mural cycles, representing one of the most complete and conclusive works of art scholarship undertaken on the subject of Sargent. Each work is catalogued in depth, with a biographical account of the sitter, a discussion of the contemporary context of the painting, and a detailed provenance, exhibition history and bibliography. Almost all of the paintings are shown, mostly in colour, including some that have never been reproduced before. The fruit of some sixteen years of research, this valuable reference provides a broad and comprehensive view of Sargent’s art.