|The Sargent I Knew by Mary Newbold
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Author's Note -- This aspect of John Singer Sargent to one of his cousins may, I hope, have worth. Our mothers were first cousins; his mother was an only child, my mother had no married brothers and sisters, so that the Sargents and ourselves have no first cousins on our mother's side. In the years between 1916 and 1925, when Sargent frequented Boston, it was my happy chance to be constantly with him -- in his daily life and work, in his studio, on scaffolding of Library or Museum, with books and plays, friends and music . . . .John Singer Sargent was born at Florence, January 12th 1856, the second child of FitzWilliam and Mary Newbold Singer Sargent, childless for two years since the death of their fist-born. Of the younger children only two sisters, of whom one married, lived to grow up and make the close knit devoted family of his later years.
Sargent's own contribution to the history of his schooldays was that his fondness for drawings in his schoolbooks made his teachers and parents despair of his learning what was printed on them. That what he drew was lively and true may be seen by the pencil drawings which his father enclosed in letters to Sargent's grandparents and the Newbold great-aunts and cousins. A score of these were exhibited in Boston a few months after his death, and all of the original drawings convey some idea or aspect important in the child's mind. The copies of birds, boats, and flowers are done with conscientious fidelity, and were probably taken from a book which he writes to his grandmother Sargent, telling her (July 11, 1864) what good models he finds in it, and that he and his sisters have lessons in writing arithmetic and geography with his father.
He recognized beauty as beauty at an early age; indeed, no one who knew him could believe he had ever been unaware of it. He said his first distinct memory was of a porphyry cobblestone in the gutter of the Via Tornabuoni in Florence of a colour so lovely that he thought of it continually, and begged his nurse to take him to see it on their daily walks.
He must have been what our nurse called "a biddable child," for there floated down to the far end of his generation a long list of things "your cousin John Sargent would never have done," coupled with a mythical belief that he arose at dawn and practiced for hours on a piano which he probably built and assuredly tuned. He preferred porridge to all other food for his hard-earned breakfast, and his favorite pastimes were playing scales and brushing his teeth. His sisters, too, were rare and perfectional beings, although they never attained such heights as he did in our mythology.
The interchange of letters, fifty or sixty years ago, in our wide family circle was full and free, and Mrs. Sargent came of a tribe of punctilious and voluminous scribes. Letters and the not infrequent meetings when the Philadelphia cousins were in Italy and France made John, Emily, and Violet Sargent vivid and real to their unseen cousins in America. "Emily is a dear little girl," writes one of the cousins to my mother from Paris in the autumn of 1865. "The children have beautiful manners, and Johnny seems artistic." Why did we not hate these paragons?
It was in May, 1865, that John Sargent wrote to his grandmother Sargent that his father was expecting to go to America the following week, and that they would miss him very much "because he always does everything for us, and I do not know what we shall do without him."
Mrs. Sargent, herself a clever painter in water colours, used to go sketching with her son, she the teacher in those days, with a spirited decision and quick choice which were characteristic. She ruled that no matter how many sketches were begun each day one must be finished. "Sargent works with vehemence and accuracy," said John Briggs Potter and this maternal dictum was told in response. "That," said Mr. Potter "was the beginning of it."
John Sargent's fist languages were
Italian and English and he seems early to have known German, for he writes
in 1864 that they were hoping their mother will find them a German nurse,
that they may not forget their German. His speech was accurate, having
a delightful and easy correctness, free of any suspicion of pedantry. His
vocabulary was large, and he rarely used words form a language other than
the one he was speaking. He was clear verbally as he was mentally, and
would describe intricate objects or compositions in a most understandable
A Biddable Child | A Musical Genius Spoiled | Painted Diaries | Portrait of Sargent | At the Front in France
Copyright 2001 Natasha
Wallace All rights reserved
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