Essay by Elaine Kilmurray
Published by Adelson Galleries, 2010
Hardcover, 88 pages, fully illustrated
At the Artcurial auction house, I spoke to Thierry Bodin, who had done initial transcriptions of all the letters for the sale catalogue to a daunting deadline. The members of the catalogue raisonné team have struggled with Sargent’s writing (especially when in French, Italian or Spanish) for decades, and it was gratifying to hear from M. Bodin that, while Octave Mirbeau’s tight, closely worked hand had given him the most trouble, Sargent’s had come a close second. During the auction, the Musée d’Orsay bid for two of the Sargent letters—one concerning Manet’s Olympia and a second with particular biographical significance for Monet—and it seemed fitting that these two letters should be housed in the museum’s archive, but Adelson Galleries was fortunate in acquiring the rest.1
It seemed to us that this was an opportunity to trace the relationship between the two artists, using the ‘new’ letters, previously published correspondence and other relevant research material, conscious that it would be a work in progress rather than a definitive account. We decided to transcribe, translate and annotate the ‘new’ letters in full to make them available to scholars, and to keep personal intervention and authorial interpretation to a minimum. In this essay, I hope to provide a summary but more discursive commentary on the piece of work we entitled (using a phrase from one of the ‘new’ letters): ‘John Singer Sargent and Claude Monet: Cher Ami et Grand Artiste’.2
There is little in the new material that sheds light on the relationship between the two men during Sargent’s years in Paris (1874-1886). To summarize, it is very likely that Sargent and Monet met in Paris ‘around 1876’. We have this from Monet’s own account, as told to Evan Charteris, Sargent’s biographer, who visited the French artist in Giverny after Sargent’s death. Monet was an old man at this stage, but there is no reason to doubt the substance of his version of the first meeting. The young American’s impact at the Paris Salon from 1877 onwards meant that he had a high profile in the press and he must have been the subject of conversation among artists: Edgar Degas, for example, was certainly aware of him at an early stage.3 Degas, Monet, Renoir and Sargent all contributed to an exhibition at the Cercle des Arts libéraux on the rue Vivienne in the spring of 1881. Other contributors included Sargent’s teacher, Carolus-Duran, Jean-Charles Cazin, Gustave Doré, Charles Giron, Robert-Fleury and Edouard-Alexandre Sain.4 Recent scholarship has made it apparent that the artistic milieu in Paris was less polarized and less tidy than the seductive narrative that lined the avant-garde heroes up against the academic villains would have us believe. In light of this still emerging understanding, it is not extraordinary that artists like Monet and Degas, who are so associated with the independent Impressionist shows, were also exhibiting at the same venue as an artist like Sargent, who was perhaps closer to the juste milieu. This, however, illustrates the breadth of the general artistic environment, rather than providing evidence of individual associations....