with Natasha -- FAQ
September 20, 1999
Four and a half months have passed since her second interview. The huge retrospective that was started at the Tate Galley in London, then traveled to Washington, and then to Boston was only days away from finally closing and it seemed like a good time to sit down once more.
It was yet another beautiful day when Natasha talked to us, this time in the autumn of the year and the days were getting cooler.
Q: Can you believe the retrospective on Sargent in Boston is almost closed?
A: No I really can't. The time has just flown by. It's all kind of bitter sweet. They just have done a wonderful job and it's hard to imagine something like this coming together again. And it's been neat to hear from others on their reaction as well.
In my case, and in reference to my site, it's really been rewarding that people have enjoyed the John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery as sort of a reference spot. I've been getting somewhere between 50 and 100 hits a day. Although I expect that to fall off substantially after the retrospective closes.
Let's talk about your pages. How have things changed since our last interview.
Just the other day I was adding up the web pages and I have over 185 separate plates -- and these are my own pages and I'm not counting the ones I link to. In total, there are over 280 identified Sargent paintings -- that's pretty good.
The greatest thing that's happened is that I've filled the largest hole I had in Sargent's life. When we last talked, I couldn't show the images from his public mural work and now I can. and that's really brought a closer to one of my goals that i wanted to reach and wasn't sure I was ever going to be able to.
Harvard, along with the Boston Public Library, has put together a wonderful site on the Library murals and I've got that added to my thumbnail chronology pages.
Before, I think I said you couldn't fully grasp the whole range of Sargent's talent without having seen his murals -- now you can. For the first time I can really call my pages an Artist Monograph -- and that has just been exciting!
My pages have threaded all the web-pages together across the net, from London, to Boston, to San Fansico, to create a cool site. And I'm pretty happy about that -- it truly is a virtual galley.
This is clearly collaborative. And I've seen my work as sort of an editor of Sargent on the Net and I have tried to give credit at each turn. I think people can see that. I have tried to keep the links to the images at their original source if possible.
Q: Did that make it a lot easier?
You would think so, but the whole process has been incredibly time consuming -- making sure links work, uploading and re-uploading corrections. If I were to average it out, each painting -- as represented by a thumbnail -- probably represents an hour-and-a-half a piece -- and that's conservative. I'm almost afraid to think how many hours I have invested in the whole Sargent Gallery.
It is nice to see what you have done with the Forum section.
Thanks, I got that idea from the Vincent van Gogh Information Gallery. When I looked at other Artist Monographs what I liked at that site I wasn't seeing at others was a scholarly infuses. I liked reading what other people thought about van Gogh.
A lot of people ask good questions I wouldn't even think of. That's sort of why I do this [the interview]. I've always enjoyed reading interviews from people doing things in areas I'm interested in.
I get a lot of questions on "help me find a sargent painting that looks like such and such", and if i know the painting I'll respond and tell them, but that's not really what I was looking for when I did this.
Q: What were you hoping for?
I like when people have written and told me about their own feelings regarding a certain painting, why they liked it, and if they couched a question in a personal way, it made me much more interested in responding and I found it more fun to just read.
The other big thing is that I've really appreciated other peoples suggestions. The alphabetical list of paintings was one. And the another was to identify the medium and size of the paintings. This has proved to be a difficult and slow process and I get to it when I can -- but I really think it helps -- talk about adding hours of labor to each painting.
If people enjoyed it, I like hearing about it.
One of the things I was hoping for and I haven't seen yet is other people that know something about a painting or about Sargent -- such as an essay that they wrote -- it may still happen in time.
What is the long term goal?
That is a great question!
If you let me continue to use David Brooks and his Vincent van Gogh Information Gallery as an example -- this is best artist monograph on the net. He's been able to compile every single painting van Gogh did -- one hundred percent of his work is online! Along with letters van Gogh wrote to his brother. It's truly a marvel of scholarly effort.
His pages are like the ideal. Pretty cool huh?
But David told me he's got (and I think he said) over 3,000 images at his site -- or something like that. And van Gogh's creative life was relatively very short (not 3,000 painting but images).
Sargent's life was long and very prolific. In some cases he painted a watercolor a day. I really don't know the total amount of Sargent's work but it's just mind boggling.
So it's unrealistic to do anything like that -- and then I'm not sure I'd want to. My life is more than just Sargent and it would require a Herculean effort.
What I don't want to see happen is Sargent's watercolors taking a disproportionate infuses compared to his oils -- from just the pure weight of numbers.
I'm torn between being the most definitive site for his work -- on the one hand -- and not losing the context of his life from all the clutter of images -- on the other. I'm not sure how this is going to play out.
What are some of your shorter term goals?
Right now I'm having fun weaving the various people surrounding Sargent's life into an understandable tapestry. Again, I'm trying to picture Sargent in the context of these people. So I'm trying to fill out the narrative chronology a bit more.
Q: Like who for example?
There is a number of people very close to Sargent and at various stages of his life. You see the names Vernon Lee, Ralph Curtis, Henry James, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Robert Louis Stevenson showing up time and again.
From a historian's view, it's interesting to see how these people fit together. I mean, you're more apt to think of Monet, Degas, Renoir, all hanging together, and can sort of see Sargent fitting in there too at the edges, but then -- at least for me I tend to compartmentalize -- so it's cool to try and picture guys like Stevenson and James -- literary giants -- hanging out with Sargent too. And as I read through all this stuff there are all these names that I don't know -- who aren't like huge, but were significant at the time and it's fun to learn about them.
But what I'm really having fun with right now is this expatriate American community that sort of hangs around itself as they travel all over Europe -- not together -- but wherever they are they sort of gravitate to each other. Not that they were elitist but more like they're family.
Take a name like Ralph Curtis -- who is this chap? Well, I know he was with Sargent the day of the salon disaster in 1884 -- Madame X, and I know he wrote a letter to his family about it. I also know he went on trips together to study art together and I know he was a painter.
Then someone sends me an image John painted of Ralph's wife in 1898, and then I learn from one of the books that he's dad and Ralph's dad were cousins. And so it's kind of like peeling an onion. and it starts to become more interesting.
And then I learn that Ralph's parents own a large place in Venice and Sargent had stayed with them in 1882 -- two years before the Madame X scandal -- and he stayed there many times afterwards. Not only that, but he painted Ralph's mom's portrait when he visited during the years when he does his Venetian Studies. So now I know why Ralph writes his parents and why they are so interested in Sargent.
And then you come across a painting like An Interior in Venice done in 1899. This is really peculiar because it's so unlike any of his other work. The brush strokes are modern but it looks almost 18th century. So if I hadn't dug deeper this painting would just sit there as being sort of out of place.
Q: So what did you learn?
The painting is of the interior of Palazzo, Barbaro, on the Grand Canal in Venice. It's where Sargent stayed with the Curties (Ralph Curtis and his parents) when he was in Italy. The younger man on the left in the background is Ralph Curtis, the younger woman with him is his wife that John painted in. The older couple is Ralph's parents.
Nice digs, huh?
I got so excited when I learned this because it ties together almost two decades, and the painting is no longer just curious, but once again telling of Sargent's life.
So like anyone, they start to become three dimensional and you can start to understand the person through the different perspectives of who they hang out with.
This last week or so I looked up Edward Darley Boit -- you know -- of the Daughters of Edward Darley Boit painting. He was a painter, and he and Sargent shared a friendship for a long time. I knew nothing about this guy -- who was also an expatriate, and it was neat to look up his painting on the net-- I found a couple and I really liked them. [The links to those paintings have since gone bad]
So that's sort of the stuff I'm doing now.
Q: Is this showing up in your pages?
I'm doing it on my own and I'm trying to layer the narrative of my chronology text into more of a story -- but i'm not sure it's working -- it could be just confusing to people at first read. There are an awful lot of names to keep straight.
On my wish list is to have a Who's Who of Sargent's life, but that's going to require writing a short Bio on each of these people.
You have gotten correspondence from people that have Sargent paintings.
Are you an expert on Sargent?
A: No not at all.
You know that is really neat. I hadn't expected to hear from people that had his work in private collection but I'm glad I have. A lot of these imagines are probably not readily available in books and its nice to have some kind of an archive for these images. I would think that it would help tremendously for scholars. Even for selfish reason I would think that the familiarity of an image held in private would only lead to an increase in it's value, if and when it was ever sold.
Q: Surely, you are being modest. You know a lot more about Sargent than most people.
I've read a lot, and continue to, and I've spent probably more time studying his paintings than the average person. But that dosen't make me an expert.
Q: It makes you an expert to most.
I remember reading a book by John Gardner called The Art of Fiction and he said that most human endeavor is mediocre at best and that most anyone can excel at most anything if they just apply themselves and work hard. It's not so much that people themselves are mediocre but we can't all become virtuosos at every nuance in life -- nor would we want to.
But there are so many other people that know far more about Sargent and about art than I.
Q: But they haven't put anything on the Internet.
Harvard has, but your right most haven't. But the web is hardly the definitive source for scholarly work. Clearly, my pages are the most complete on the net for Sargent. And I'm pretty happy about that. Sargent deserves a great site. He was a wonderful painter.
That's one of the reasons why I'm so upset with most museums (well upset is probably too harsh a word) but they just don't get it. If people could see and study paintings they have in their permenant collections, they'd have so many more people wanting to buy their posters, their books, pay admittance to see them in person, and yet they don't -- to date -- with some few exceptions -- spend so little time and effort to getting the images of their treasures online. And if you visit their site (such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) you get a nice layout of the building and can find out where the bathrooms are but . . . . no art! Their website is pathetic.
[I have happily, since this interview, had to eat my words in regards to the MFA -- they now are working towards getting a lot of their art online]
Sure, I understand, they want us to come to the museum --
But here is my most ideal museum. Just think of it. Let's say you're planning a trip to the Met in New York and there is a particular period that you want to really key on. Or let's say you haven't been there before. Wouldn't it be neat if the Met's web page had every room duplicated on a virtual web-page with an image of every painting in that room corisponding with the text of the plaque that goes along with it. You could study the image, familiarize yourself with it, study about the painter at home if you want, read the plaque and then when you're there, you don't wear yourself out trying to read everything but you just spend your time soaking in the beauty -- you've already done the initial familiarizing of the work. Wouldn't that be a much richer experience for people?
Ok, so it takes time and effort. But most museums have a small army of volunteers and scores of art students hanging around, there's just no direction--
Listen, I've gabbed long enough, I should probably get running.
Q: Thank you Natasha. Can we do this again?
I suppose so. If people continue to find this interesting we could.
Q: Let's hope they do.