In June, one of the Flint Institute of Arts’ most adored and valued paintings was painstakingly inspected, packed and cautiously trucked to the highly esteemed Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The painting is titled Garden Study of the Vickers Children by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and it joined the MET exhibition Sargent: Portraits of Artists & Friends, which runs through October 4.
“The John Singer Sargent painting is one of the most important works in the FIA gallery,” says Tracee Glab, FIA Curator of Collections & Exhibitions. “When it’s gone, people miss it. The public exposure that we get for his painting is good, and we’re reaching people who may never get to Flint.”
Occasionally swapping works of art between museums keeps the content fresh with special exhibits that help drive attendance and bring in new visitors for the FIA. Swapping also promotes a greater appreciation for the cultures and time periods in which different works were created; however, the FIA doesn’t just lend their artwork to any facility that requests it.
Proposals are reviewed by a collections committee which considers the type of facility or museum making the request, especially its level of security and the temperature and climate control. Some pieces with certain textiles are too fragile to be loaned. The FIA’s Board of Trustees votes whether to accept or reject proposals.
“We don’t want to lend our works if we don’t like the idea behind it, for example if it is not scholarly enough,” explains Tracee. “We also want it to be an ambassador for the FIA and to complement our community.”
Any museum that borrows a work of art from the FIA has to pay for all of the costs involved, including insurance in-transit and on-site, plus the costs of an FIA representative to accompany it safely to its destination and back home, adds Tracee.
Before beginning its journey to New York, the precious 54×36-inch oil on canvas was inspected by Heather Jackson, FIA Assistant Registrar, who donned special gloves and looked at every square inch of it with a magnifying glass, noting its condition in writing for insurance purposes.
The Sargent piece was then carefully enclosed in a crate with a padded interior specifically made to fit its dimensions, and packed into a larger shipping crate. Heather accompanied the painting to New York, ensuring its trip in a climate-controlled environment devoid of heat and humidity. Heat and humidity could cause the canvas to expand or contract, thus potentially damaging the paint.
Once the piece arrived at the MET, curators inspected it again and compared it to Heather’s pre-trip inspection notes. They examined it for cracking of the paint, any indications of swelling or contracting, and any alterations to the canvas. Heather assisted with the process of getting the artwork safely hung for the MET exhibition. “I’m there every step of the process from the minute it enters the gallery to when it’s hung on the wall,” she says.
Known for his vivid, impressionistic style, John Singer Sargent was born in Italy to American parents and traveled throughout Europe and the United States painting portraits of artists, friends and other prominent people who commissioned his talents.
Following the scandalous response to his Madame X portrait in Paris (now considered one of his best works), he left for a new start in England. There, he was commissioned by the Vickers family – whose company engineered the Vickers machine gun used during WWI – to paint their family portraits. Garden Study of the Vickers Children was completed in 1884 and signified a new direction for his career. In addition to his formal portraits, Sargent also painted people in less-formal poses and in settings that included elements of nature.
“The John Singer Sargent painting is one of the most important works in the FIA gallery. When it’s gone, people miss it.”
“He was embarking on something more individualistic and becoming his own artist,” says Tracee, who admits that Sargent is one of her favorite 19th-century portrait artists. “The portraits are impressionistic, but also well-defined. He pays attention to the facial features, and also portrays women in natural settings and not as status symbols.”
The FIA’s Garden Study of the Vickers Children is one of 90 selections by Sargent in the special exhibition; according to the MET, the exhibition brings together several works which have seldom been shown together, including different paintings of the same individual.
The painting will return to the FIA after the New York exhibition has concluded. It was gifted to the FIA more than 40 years ago by the Viola E. Bray Charitable Trust via Mr. and Mrs. William L. Richards.