John Singer Sargent -- Letters  (Frontpage )

Ralph Curtis' to his parents May 1884

Ralph Curtis on the Beach at Scheveningen
My Dear People,

Your paper will be ordered this a.m. Yesterday the birthday or funeral of a painter Scamps (John Sargent). Most exquis. weather. Walked up Champs E. chestnuts in full flower and dense mob of "tout Paris" in pretty clothes, gesticulating and laughing, slowly going into the Ark of Art. In 15 mins. I saw no end of acquaintances and strangers, and heard everyone say "ou est le portrait Gautreau?" "Oh allez voir ca" [1] -- John covered with dust stopped with his trunks at the club the night before and took me on to his house where we dined. He was very nervous about what he feared, but his fears were far exceeded by the facts of yesterday. There was a grande tapage[2] before it all day. In a few minutes I found him dodging behind doors to avoid friends who looked grave. By the corridors he took me to see it. I was disappointed in the colour. She looks decomposed. All the women jeer. Ah voilà "la belle!'  "Oh quel horreur!" [3] etc. Then a painter exclaims "superbe de style.  "magnifique d'audace!" "quel dessin!" [4] Then the blageur club man-- "C'est une copie!" "Comment une cope?"   "Mais oui--la peinture d'aprés un autre morceau de peinture s'appele une copie." [5] I heard that. All the a.m. it was one series of bons mots, mauvaises plaisanteries [6] and fierce discussions. John, poor boy, was navré [7] We got out a big déjeuner [8] at Ledoyens of a dozen painters and ladies and I took him there. In the p.m. the tide turned as I kept saying it would. It was discovered to be the knowing thing to say "étrangement épatant!" [9] I went home with him, and remained there while he went to see the Boits. Mde. Gautreau and mére came to his studio "bathed in tears." I stayed them off but the mother returned and caught him and made a fearful scene saying "Ma fille est perdue--tout Paris se monque d'elle. Mon genre sera forcé de se battre. Elle mourira de chagrin" [10] etc. John replied it was against all laws to retire a picture. He had painted her exactly as she was dressed, that nothing could be said of the canvas worse than had been said in print of her appearance dans le monde [11] etc. etc. Defending his cause made him feel much better. Still we talked it over till 1 o'clock here last night and I fear he has never had such a blow. He says he wants to get out of Paris for a time. He goes to Eng. in 3 weeks. I fear là bas he will fall into Pre-R. influences wh. has got a strange hold of him he says since Siena.

I want him to go to Seville and do the tobacco girls with me in Nov. Says he will--nous verrons. [12]

(letter from Ralph Curtis' to his parents 1884; quoted in Charteris; John Sargent; pp. 61-62)


1) "ou est le portrait Gautreau?" "Oh allez voir ca"
Have you seen the Gautreau portrait ? You must see it. 

2) grande tapage
a big scene

3) Ah voilà "la belle!'  "Oh quel horreur!
Ah here "the beautiful one! '  " Oh what a horror! 
Note- The comment was a slam to both Gautreau and Sargent. This period in Paris, was moving into la belle époque (or the beautiful time) when paintings were done to flatter the patron and show them (especially women) at their most beautiful. Gautreau was a great beauty but Sargent was showing her at her most sexual, and the women were aghast.

Interestingly enough, it would be Sargent's friends Paul César Helleu and Giovanni Boldini who go on to champion La Belle Époque, but by the 1890's times had changed and it was actually desirable to have a bit of sexuality infused in the portrait.

4)  "superbe de style.  "magnifique d'audace!" "quel dessin!"
"superb style," " magnificent audacity! " " what a painting! " 

5) "C'est une copie!" "Comment une cope?"   "Mais oui--la  peinture d'aprés un autre morceau de peinture s'appele une copie."
(Editor's Note -- I can't translate this very well)  
It is a copy! " " How, a copy? " " Yes -- the painting is part of aprés another piece copied from appele. " 

6) bons mots, mauvaises plaisanteries
-- witty remarks, bad jokes

7) navré
-- upset, nervous 

8) déjeuner

9) "étrangement épatant!"
strangely impressive 

10) "Ma fille est perdue--tout Paris se monque d'elle. Mon genre sera forcé de se battre. Elle mourira de chagrin"
 " My daughter is lost -- all of Paris mocks her.  Our family will be humiliated. She will die a broken heart " 

11) dans le monde
or as she was sen in person 

12) nous verrons
we will see

 The Boit Family 
The Boits: Edward Darley and his wife Mary Louisa were friends of Sargent. They were part of the expatriate American community living in Paris at the time. Edward was a Harvard trained lawyer from Boston turned painter and it was the Boit's children that John painted in 1882 then showed at the Salon the following year to quite a bit of critical stir. Being artist themselves, they gave John full latitude in his painting of their children and I think they would have been very sympathetic to he troubles and a source of solace to his grief.
Daughters of Edward Darley Boit
Daughters of Edward Darley Boit


John Sargent Fall to Pre-Raphael Influences?
When I first read Ralph Curtis' letter, I thought it strange that a very good friend would be worried about Sargent turning toward the Pre-Raphael Brotherhood and I didn't understand why since it seemed to me that his notion or art really didn't align itself with the Pre-Raphael Brotherhood. In fact some sources have even chosen to delete this part of the letter. 

But the answer has come to me more recently. It seems Curtis had  grounds for his concerns. Henry James had taken a liking to the young fellow expatriate American painter and in the spring of 1884, just prior to the Paris Salon, James talked him into visiting London where he wined and dined Sargent trying to influence the young artist by way of introductions to some of the prominent pre-Raphaelite painters of the time such as Joshua Reynolds, Frederic Leighton, John Everett Millais, Edwin Austin Abby, and Burne-Jones -- among others.

Sargent had enjoyed his time in London and Curtis must have known this from their conversations. There was a credible concern for Curtis to think that Sargent may be looking in a new direction