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Youthful exploits of John Singer Sargent and JW Waterhouse

A recollection of an event experienced by John William Waterhouse and John Singer Sargent when students in Italy together was published in The Gateway magazine in 1907. It recollects a morbid event experienced by the painters John Singer Sargent (Giovanni) and John William Waterhouse (Nino) when they were young art students together in Italy. During a walking tour they painted a portrait of a dying Italian boy on the walls of his home. The source was published in 1907 which would put the date of the event at circa 1882.

One of Waterhouse's artist friends was William Logsdail. Logsdail would paint Waterhouse's wife Esther, and there is mention of Logsdail spending time with Sargent in Italy.

Although so tenacious of his American citizenship, Mr. Sargent, like one of his fellow academicians, Mr. J. W. Waterhouse, was born under Italy's sunny skies.

Five-and-twenty years ago they were both promising young students in Rome together, known to their intimates as "Giovanni" and "Nino", respectively.

On one occasion when they were on a walking tour a bareheaded priest came running after them as they were striding over the open country. "Pardon, signori," he said, "but it is in your power to do a great service, for which heaven will reward you. There is a poor but worthy couple in yonder village whose son is dying. When he departs they have nothing to remember him by."

"I see," said Sargent; "they want us to paint his portrait." "Ah, signor, poor as they are, they would give all their savings". "Say no more. We have no paper or canvas left," responded the two young artists, "but we will see what we can do." So they retraced their steps, and were led by the priest to a small but tidy cottage. An aged woman received them with transports of joy and ushered them into a white-walled chamber, where a very handsome but extremely dissipated looking youth lay mortally stricken.

"He is our only son," pleaded the poor mother. "If we only had but a picture of him it would not be so terrible to lose him.." The visitors, naturally, were deeply moved. "We will do what we can, Sargent," said Waterhouse; "you take one wall and I'll take the other."

And the two future Royal Academicians set to work to immortalize the features of the young fellow, who lay motionless on his cot, staring straight ahead and paying no attention to what was going on around him.

For an hour they worked silently with crayons and colors, and from time to time heard the sobbing of the old couple in the next room.

At last the sick man grew restless. "Send these foreigners away," he whined. "They have the evil eye--they are trying to kill me."

The mother ran in, and, seeing the portraits on the wall, stood transfixed with admiration, her "bellissimos" and "splendissimos" being plentifully echoed by the padre and her husband.

Nobody heeded the dying man's groans and complaints. "Send the two devils away," he went on gasping. "No, Giuseppe," cried the mother angrily; "you can die now."

"O, signori," she went on, turning to the two young men, "I had but one son and he was mostly drunk and beat his mother. I have two now, behold, on the walls, and, by the virgin, they will not make us grieve !" With a gesture the good woman then signified to the youth on the cot that he might die as soon as he liked.

Reminiscences about J.W. Waterhouse

Almost nothing is known of Waterhouse's private life. Gathered here is a selection of mentions and anecdotes discovered by searching old magazines and books.

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