The Swagger and the Struggle: Richard Ormond and Lachlan Goudie discuss John Singer Sargent
Richard Ormond is the grandson of Violet Sargent Ormond, sister of John Singer Sargent. Former deputy director of the National Portrait Gallery and director of the Maritime Museum, he is co-author of the nine volume catalogue raisonné of Singer Sargent’s work and curator of two recent major exhibitions of his portraits and watercolours, as well as historical advisor to the Broadway Arts Festival.
Lachlan Goudie, known to most for presenting the BBC’s Big Painting Challenge, is an artist, writer and Arts broadcaster. Son of the Scottish artist Alexander Goudie, educated in Glasgow and Cambridge, Lachlan has written and presented the recent BBC series on The Story of Scottish Art and The Art of Industry. His latest exhibition of paintings of the shipyards of Govan and Rosyth is currently touring Britain.
Richard and Lachlan will explore the art and adventures of John Singer Sargent in what promises to be a lively and informative illustrated conversation exploring the technique and historical context of some of Sargent’s finest works.
Margot James MP Minister of State at the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport officially opened the 2018 festival at the start of this event. Her brief being “Nothing political. Two minutes. Quite enough!” which Margot delivered with humour and aplomb. Karen Bloch, the Festival Organiser introduced Ormond and Goudie to warm applause. The below is an indication of the conversation, but it is not verbatim.
LG: The title of our conversation ‘The Swagger and the Struggle…’ captures the artistic struggle Sargent, like all artists, had. We often imagine his work was painted with such ease.
RO: Art disguising art.
LG: Yes, the struggle is hidden. As an artist, every time I sketch, I teach myself over and over again. To think Sargent had the same struggle…
The Portrait of Carolus Duran shows terrific facility. Duran was infatuated with Velazquez and schooled Sargent at his atelier in Paris.
The portrait was painted when Sargent was just 22, and was given as a gift to his master, Duran. How difficult must that have been? It sounds like my father! He was a painter who studied in Glasgow in the 1950s. I remember when I was young and being taken to the National Gallery of Scotland on a Saturday and when I began to paint he was always supportive of my painting But the tensions of inter-family painters is difficult enough, but those within a Salon – when your student produces something like this at aged just 22! It is inculcated with one touch painting on canvas, just that one touch!
RO: Yes, that economy of means. Sargent never added a stroke more than needed. He never wasted a stroke, and he translates his sitter to a series of free flowing strokes.
LG: That zing of red! Without it the painting would just be drab!
RO: Yes! It is a deliberate and meaningful red, carefully included as it is the badge of the Legion d’Honneur.
Sargent had no side to him, he was a generous spirit. He spoke many languages, was a real linguist, and cosmopolitan.
LG: So why did his family end up in Europe? He was born in Europe, wasn’t he?
RO: Yes, he was. His parents went there to recover after the death of their first child, and Sargent was later born in Florence. They forgot to go home!
RO: The Daughters of Boit was painted in an apartment in Paris. The four girls appear in a reception room but the work is full of mystery. It has been described as ‘Four corners in a void’. None of the four sisters married [and two at least had mental health problems].
LG: Trying to get children to sit still is incredibly difficult. You suggest six sessions of three hours each, but you really want ten sessions. So to achieve this stillness with children so young!
RO: It has been said of the girls “They’ve just murdered the nanny!” Sargent was looking at Velazquez a lot at this time, and did copies of his Las Meninas (1656, Prado). He spent hours in the Prado and they hold a list of which images he copied on which day. Velazquez was rediscovered in the nineteenth century, so Sargent’s bold work was an extraordinary thing to do. He is talked of as the heir to Manet, who was just alive at this point in time and Sargent did see himself part of the great Western art tradition. The Ashmolean even has an image which Sargent bought at the Manet sale.
LG: Here Sargent is doing a Monet, doing a Monet. Unlike the Boit Daughters tonal values, this work is liberated.
RO: It was painted during Sargent’s Broadway period. Monet and Sargent became very good friends. Sargent was useful to Monet and even helped find him patrons (rather than the other way round as you may expect).
LG: Sargent won’t quite let go as much as Monet does. His use of light is exceptional, but he is doing a pastiche, paying tribute to Monet. Was this typical of artists to visit and paint each other?
RO: Yes! He had a whole host of people visiting him, and at points he even shut the door on them. He tired of people visiting him hoping to be painted. There is a feeling a freedom of movement with the paint and brush. Sargent was obsessed with light! He painted outside and went off travelling each summer, always seeking to paint what he saw. Duran encouraged this en plein air painting approach.
LG: A lightning painting! To achieve such things with that much freedom! In the sketch, which is much larger than I had anticipated, you can see he was testing things. He was defining his sweeping stagger.
RO: The colours are used as a way of casting light. The lamp for example casts light, and the touch of lilac creates a luminosity.
LG: Who was ‘Madame X’?
RO: She was known as Amelie, a French American lady called Madame Gautreau who was a similar age to Sargent. She was known as a ‘peacock beauty’. The painting was done over an 18 month – 2 year period, and was not a commission. Sargent hovered on the brink of greatness, but oh dear…
LG: She courted controversy.
RO: Yes, she was in the news.
LG: So Sargent wanted a bit of action, a bit of the glow [from her]?
RO: He tempted fortune with the painting. Sargent had close female friends, but a fear of intimacy.
Madame X in its original form with fallen strap.
LG: Please look away now!
RO: She is sexy, and provocative. She doesn’t give a dam.
LG: That arm is extraordinary, she is like a classical sculpture. She was also a performer who knew how to pose, how to bend. That fallen strap…
RO: Very few reviewers actually mentioned the strap. It is the brazen sexy countenance that was remarked upon, she was very ‘dangerous’. She was painted with white powder, although look at that red ear.
LG: Yes, that red ear. Again, that daub of red.
RO: And the crescent moon in her hair, of course representing Diana. She looks chic, sophisticated, but she was seen as an aberration, a real shocker. Sargent was bemused by Paris’ shock and left, encouraged by Henry James to come to England and to Broadway. But that was out of the frying pan into the fire, for Britain was very conservative and therefore, equally shocked. He arrived in Broadway and whilst here he painted Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1887, Tate) which was exhibited at the R.A. in 1887 to great success. It is a jumbo impressionist sketch. Whilst here, Sargent would suddenly stop playing tennis in the garden, so that he could paint the girls in the right light. There is a certain Pre-Raphaelite quality to this painting.
LG: I was painting irises yesterday and could imagine Sargent installing himself and styling himself with exceptional vigour as the light changed so that he could capture it. But to know that he returned the second year and didn’t “stodge it up” when he worked on the canvas again!
RO: The conservators say they can tell which sitting the brushstrokes were made in. I actually knew one of the girls from the painting when I was a little boy (and she was an old lady).
LG: Having my picture painted when I was young was hell! These girls must have been very patient.
RO: The original composition sketches show the work only had one girl included, and was less balanced.
LG: This painting began the erosion of my self-belief in my own artistic skill. I used to visit this in the National Gallery in Scotland and looking at it I was stunned by Sargent’s use of white. If you lopped off the corner of the work, it becomes an abstract. You could lose yourself in it. White is Sargent’s colour. What he can do with white! Too much white, can kill a painting. It’s a real challenge. That dress could be a glacier. You can hear the rustle of the dress.
RO: Lady Agnew had ME and was quite ill when this was painted. However, it had and still has a style, a glamour to it [which belies her illness].When it was exhibited, it knocked everything else into touch. It was the right moment for Sargent. In 1887, he was successful in the States and was celebrated there like the prodigal son. He was also made an A.R.A. over here.
LG: The camera is the blight of painting in my opinion. It stops you looking and flattens what is before you. The fluidity which Sargent’s brushstrokes create movement is wonderful. Look at the sparkle of light in the gem! His ability to create shadows and the colours that are within them are rich. There are no blacks, but there are lilacs and mauves.
RO: His use of mauve is really evident in this work, and is an important colour for 1890s Aestheticism. The Wyndham Sisters (1899, Met Museum) is half shadow and has a van Dyckian feel to it, similar to Sargent’s Portrait of the 9th Duke of Marlborough with his family (1905, Blenheim). There is also some visual discourse between Sargent and Whistler, and they do relate to one another. Sargent liked Whistler, but less the other way round. Whistler and Sargent had a vexed relationship [as did Whistler with many!]
Portraiture was Sargent’s bread and butter, but in 1880, just before Madame X, he turned more to watercolours in order to escape from growing pressures of world of portraiture. Sargent shut up shop as a portraitist and decided he would paint ‘not the human face’.
The Charcoal Drawings
RO: At the Morgan Library in 2019, there will be an exhibition of some of the over 650 charcoal drawings Sargent produced.
LG: Some of these are surprisingly large in scale. The charcoal works are so energetic. He is like dead meat to some critics. He didn’t always finish the story for the viewer. This figure looks like she is about to rise up. It could be a short story by Henry James! She dissolves. In some of his landscape watercolours he touches at the very borders of delineation, into abstraction. Oil paintings allow you to make mistakes, but watercolours don’t. It really is one touch painting. Wet on wet.
RO: His works are moist, blurred, but he never goes too far, he has incredible control.
LG: It implies a constant movement, a fleeting past you in a few strokes.
RO: His Venetian works dissolve, you can’t tell where the water ends. There is such a translucency of light.
LG: Even his large panorama of The Mountains of Moab create the sense of heat and light that is so realistic. I remember where I was there, I stood looking at that scene and it is so physically accurate, you are saturated with the heat. He really looked at the mountains, capturing the crimson pink of the scene. He was so chromatically sensitive, able to break down the film of colour.
It is tiring as a painter. But Sargent couldn’t stop himself from painting, even when on holiday he painted tirelessly. The Brook (1907, Private Collection) which shows Rosemarie and Ren [whose daughter was in the audience] is an example of this. Rosemarie had a wonderfully sad story; her husband died on the Western Front and in 1919, so after the war, she died when working as a war nurse when a shell took out the hospital.
LG: That’s tragic. His use of light, the way he catches the algy, and the water. They are not two women in this painting, they are odalisques.
RO: He worked so much, all the time. He was compelled to work so much so that used to say “Demons, demons”!
LG: Speeding up… [due to time]
War – Again Sargent wove a narrative into Gassed with just the touches of white.
RO: He used to sit under a white parasol with shells going off around him, but he seemed impervious.
LG: The work is a collision of destruction and life, and Sargent has risen to the challenge of creating something monumental.
RO: It is frieze like, [like Leighton] and was intended as a centre piece for a room which never got built and is now at IWM. He did endless sketches of soldiers.
LG: I am currently drawing a lot at some docks, and drawing from work life is a very invigorating experience. Your relationship changes with what is around you and the way people respond to you.
Boston Murals (1895 – 1919)
RO: Sargent thought his greatest contribution were the murals at the Boston Library. This was public art, and he had to reinvent himself to convincingly create this. It is Byzantine, Spanish, with a heavy relief.
LG: To see figures like this! So different, he is clearly looking at Michelangelo, at the classical form. Seeking musculature.
RO: Yes, and he used over one hundred different materials: metal, jewellery, plasticine etc. The murals were made in England and sent to the States. He also then did works for Harvard, and for MFA, Boston. He also created bronze sculptures, such as a pelican feeding her young [a Christian symbol].
LG: Every great sculptor is a great draughtsman.
V&A Studio Photos
Three are over six hundred photos that belonged to Sargent in the V&A, and they have only recently been identified as being of significance, having previously been dispersed. There is still much to discover about Sargent!
LG: It has been a fascinating talk [wrapping up as overran!]
RO: Thank you.
General thank yous abounded…………….
 The work is displayed alongside the vases.
 In 1887, Henry James described the painting as representing a ‘happy play-world … of charming children’.
 Two of the sisters had mental health problems.
 Broadway, where the Arts Festival and this conversation took place, is where many artists and writers came: Henry James, J.M. Barrie, Virginia Woolf, Frank Cadogan Cowper and of course, Sargent.