2011-06-23 / News

Century-old portrait unveiled to family member thanks to islander

By Margo Sullivan

Bob and Wendy Crook look down over portraits hanging in their Jamestown studio. The couple helped track down a portrait that is over 100 years old. It was at the RISD museum in Providence. Photo by Margo Sullivan Bob and Wendy Crook look down over portraits hanging in their Jamestown studio. The couple helped track down a portrait that is over 100 years old. It was at the RISD museum in Providence. Photo by Margo Sullivan Wendy and Bob Crooks of Jamestown have discovered a lot about Don Manuel Garcia Jr., a once-famous singing teacher, who counted Jenny Lind and King George V among his pupils.

The couple made themselves experts on all things Garcia in advance of his great-granddaughter’s visit from England this week.

Garcia, a distinguished teacher at the Paris Conservatory and later at London’s Royal Academy, died in 1906, so great-granddaughter Marion Drescher never met him. But on Wednesday, she was to experience the next best thing by seeing his life-size portrait by American master, John Singer Sargent.

Sargent painted the portrait in honor of Garcia’s 100th birthday, and it’s the frail old man his greatgranddaughter will meet, Crooks said.

“An old person has that beautiful softness to the face,” Crooks said. “The cheeks have softness and gentleness; you almost see the transparency of the skin. The complexion is so remarkable.”

Crooks found the portrait, after agreeing two years ago to hunt for it, despite her misgivings.

“It seemed an impossible feat,” Crooks laughed. She didn’t have much to go on.

Drescher, of Kingswear in Devon, England, surmised from her genealogy research that the painting might be somewhere in New England. She mentioned that possibility to a mutual friend, Melinda Smallwood, also of Kingswear.

Naturally, Smallwood, who has known Wendy Crooks since their schoolgirl days in Belgium, emailed Crooks with the art detective assignment.

“Could you find the painting?” she wrote.

“Oh, my goodness,” Crooks thought.

Sargent had been prolific. He created thousands of works of art – among them, 900 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolors and hundreds of pen and ink and pencil sketches. So what were the odds that Crooks would not only find the portrait but also that the art museum at the Rhode Island School of Design would own that one particular oil painting of a once-famous singing master, Don Manuel Garcia?

The RISD museum has two Sargent portraits and one landscape, she said. But she decided to start at RISD with a call to Maureen O’Brien, curator of painting and sculpture.

O’Brien’s answer startled her.

“Well, we have him here,” she said. “He’s in storage.”

The painting was sold to pay death taxes, according to Crooks, and the RISD museum obtained it from an art dealer.

“They’ve had it for over 100 years,” Bob Crooks said. Although the Sargent painting was not on display, O’Brien offered to let Drescher look at it.

But Drescher did not want to make the 3,000-mile trip to see the painting unless it was hanging. This spring, Crooks said, O’Brien called to say the Sargent had gone back on display.

Drescher and Smallwood were due in Jamestown on Tuesday and at the museum on Wednesday.

“It’s unusual,” Crooks agreed. “So, usually at a family reunion, you walk into someone’s arms. This is going to be, ‘Oh, there he is. On the wall.’”

RISD on Wednesday will also give Drescher a print of her greatgrandfather’s portrait, Crooks said. Up to now, Drescher has viewed photos of the painting via the Internet.

Alex Mann, Mellon Fellow, also will meet Drescher and talk a bit about Sargent. In a telephone interview Monday, he said the RISD museum has five Sargent paintings plus more than 50 drawings and watercolors. The Garcia portrait is significant because this painting was the museum’s first Sargent and because Garcia himself was an interesting figure.

“The museum acquired it in 1919,” he said, in effect, announcing Sargent had been recognized as “someone whose work needed to be represented,” Mann said.

At the time, Sargent was known in Europe and in the U.S. as “the premier society portraitist,” Mann said.

“His work was admired because he captured the likeness of the sitter,” he said, and also because Sargent was an innovator. As a contemporary of the impressionists, though not an impressionist himself, he used “looser freer brush strokes” in parts of the canvas and “in other places, extremely tight” compact, economical brush strokes. Through that combination, Mann said, he “constructed a portrait to draw attention to very specific” areas, typically, the head and hands.

The Garcia portrait is a good example, Mann said, noting Sargent led the eye to Garcia’s face and hands. The face, head and hands are very important here, he said, and particularly by emphasizing the head, Sargent portrayed Garcia as an intellectual.

Crooks, an artist in her own right, said the first thing she admired about the painting were the trousers. In the way they hang, Sargent – with a few brush strokes – expressed “a skinny, frail old man’s legs,” she said. “As you go away, the trouser legs almost become abstract,” she said. The artist also used the interplay of light and dark to focus the eye on the face, but that’s not all to the technique.

“It’s more than that,” she said. “The edges of the coat almost vanish into the background. Really, he wants you to look at the face. I know what it takes to create an effect with oil. With an economy of brush strokes, he’s created this beautiful complexion.”

Garcia lived to the age of 102, Bob Crooks said.

“He was moderate in his drinking and eating, and he never smoked,” he said after reading a 1908 monograph about Garcia. He found the book online. The couple has embraced the story of Manuel Garcia and his famous family.

“The background of that entire family is amazing,” he said. “These people were hob-nobbing with kings and queens.”

“We don’t know if Marion knows any of this yet,” Crooks said. “It’s going to be a surprise.”

Drescher looked into her family history to find out if her grandmother had been exaggerating when she claimed a family connection to an inventor and singing teacher, who was born in Spain into a famous operatic family.

Don Manuel Garcia was born in Catalonia and was indeed a famous opera singer and teacher. He also won fame as the “Christopher Columbus of the larynx” for inventing an instrument which used mirrors to allow direct observation of the vocal chords and folds of the larynx.

He gave Jenny Lind and King George V singing lessons; and though he’s not a household name today, in 1906, when he turned 100, Don Manuel Garcia was feted by the King of England.

The couple met Drescher two years ago in Devon at Smallwood’s daughter’s wedding. Crooks, who is originally from Surrey, England, said Smallwood is her “oldest, dearest friend.”

And although the long journey to see a painting may seem unusual, Crooks would undertake it herself had Sargent painted a portrait of her family member.

Her husband agreed.

“To have a famous artist’s work of art about your relative, I’d go see that,” he said.

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