Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Sargent and Spain at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


Sargent and Spain

National Gallery of Art, Washington, Oct. 2, 2022–Jan. 2, 2023

Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco, Feb. 11–May 14, 2023

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Original Photos by Anne Lloyd

In May 1876, John Singer Sargent traveled to the United States to insure that his U.S. citizenship did not lapse. Sargent, the son of American parents, had been born in Florence, Italy, in 1856. For the next two decades, his expatriot family sojourned in Europe. They did so ostensibly for health reasons, though none suffered from any notable illnesses or injuries. 

By U.S. law all young citizens, born abroad, had to return to American soil by their twentieth year or forfeit their citizenship. So Sargent ventured to his ancestral shores. But it was not much of a homecoming. He visited tourist sites like Niagara Falls and the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Then he went back to the familiar surroundings of the painting academies and museums of Europe.

Art galleries and the annual cycle of salons and exhibitions, however glittering, are not enough to nurture a creative soul. Every artist needs a spiritual home. Sargent found his in an unlikely place: Spain.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. has recently opened a sensational presentation of Sargent’s oil paintings, water colors, sketches and photos. These detail the special relationship of this “expat” American artist with the alluring, mystical realm stretching from the Pyrenees Mountains to the Straits of Gibraltar. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
Gallery view of Sargent and Spain at the National Gallery of Art

Sargent and Spain upholds the grand tradition of landmark National Gallery exhibitions devoted to giants of nineteenth century art. These exhibits usually focus on an important aspect of the respective artist's oeuvre to better understand the whole. Thus, greater insight into Cezanne may be attained by studying his portraits and self-portraits. Degas' obsession with the crowded stage of the Paris Opera helps us probe his illusive, enigmatic character.

John Singer Sargent, Self-Portrait, 1906
(Not shown in the Sargent and Spain exhibit)

So too, with John Singer Sargent and the art created during his travels in Spain.

Spain likely was a favored motif for Sargent because this land of deeply-ingrained traditions appealed to him, given his own lack of roots. Spain, however, was not an automatic choice for the theme of a Sargent exhibition. He never lived in Spain for an extended period of time and his seven visits were spread over thirty-three years, from 1879 to 1912. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Photo of John Singer Sargent painting at the Alhambra

Nor was Sargent the only American artist to fall in love with the Spain. A splendid exhibition in 2021 at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, VA, and the Milwaukee Art Museum surveyed the century-long American infatuation with the art and culture of the Iberian Peninsula which began with Washington Irving's three-year odyssey in 1826 and extended to the paintings of William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri and Mary Cassatt.

If Sargent joined in the widespread appreciation of the "romance" of Spain, his trips there were part-working-vacations and part-pilgrimages. In Sargent's case the object of his devotion was the cult of the seventeenth century Spanish master, Diego Velasquez.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Detail of John Singer Sargent's copy of Velazquez' Las Meninas, 1879

The first gallery of Sargent and Spain shows numerous sketches and more finished studies in oil of famous works by Velazquez. Predictably, there is a copy of Las Meninas (1879) which clearly shows Sargent exploring his way through the composition of Velazquez' most celebrated painting. This would serve Sargent well  when he came to paint his own ensemble portrait of  American "meninas" a few years later, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882).  

Also on view is Sargent's version of Velazquez' masterful interpretation of the fable of Arachne, The Spinners. Painted the same year as the copy of Las Meninas, it is a much more finished, polished work. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 John Singer Sargent's copy after Velazquez' The Spinners, 1879

Significantly, Sargent limited his version of The Spinners to only a portion of the original painting. Sargent's objective may have been to concentrate on bringing his brush technique and handling of color up to Velazquez' exceptional level of skill rather than to reprise the original painting. If so, he succeeded to a very considerable degree.

The opening gallery of Sargent and Spain is dominated by a stunning portrait of a young English boy, Cecil Harrison, painted in 1888. Sargent was friends with the boy's parents and the painting was a watershed moment in his career. This was Sargent's first portrait of a child to be painted in Britain. As an evocation of youthful innocence and of future promise, this style of portraiture appealed mightily to Sargent's British clients. 

These personal details, however, do not account for the prominent placement of Cecil Harrison in the exhibition.This painting plays such a key role in Sargent and Spain because it forcefully illustrates the enduring influence of Velazquez upon Sargent's development as a artist.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
John Singer Sargent's Cecil Harrison, c. 1888

The technical mastery displayed in Cecil Harrison was clearly inspired by Sargent's study of Velazquez during his 1879 painting visits to the Prado. The burnished browns and shadowy blacks of the background, so vital in fixing the subject before our eyes without distraction, are straight-out of Velazquez. Indeed, the painterly skill demonstrated in the background coloration is so high that Velazquez might well have painted it himself.

Sargent and Velazquez shared another, poignant, connection. Both artists painted society portraits in nations at the zenith of power and success. Both Spain and Britain were quickly to suffer the ravages of "Great" wars during the later years of both artists. The fresh-faced boy in a sailor suit would sacrifice his life in World War I. Major Cecil Harrison of the Rifle Brigade was killed in action at the battle of Neuve Chappelle in March 1915.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Gallery view of the Sargent and Spain exhibition at the National Gallery, showing John Singer Sargent's La Carmencita, 1890

The second gallery of Sargent and Spain is also dominated by a full-length portrait. But the impact of this work has a far different effect. This time, Sargent's painting summons to life a woman who personified the pride and the passion of the soul of Spain. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
John Singer Sargent's La Carmencita, 1890

Carmen Dauset Moreno (1868-1910), known as Carmencita, was a world-famous dancer. Such was her renown that Carmencita performed before a  film camera at the Edison studio in West Orange, N.J. This is believed to be the first cinematic recording of dance for commercial distribution. A video of this "genesis" moment of the Silver Screen is on view in conjunction with the Sargent portraits of Carmencita.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
Edison Manufacturing Co. film of Carmencita the Spanish Dancer, 1894

The presence of Velazquez is immediately noticeable in the standing portrait of Carmencita. So is the influence of El Greco, in the soaring, elongated figure of the dancer. But the same year that Sargent painted this imposing, statuesque image of Camencita, he also attempted to portray her dancing, in a frenzy of motion.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
John Singer Sargent's La Carmencita Dancing

Looking at this fascinating painting, one might excused to surmise that Sargent tried to depict Carmencita as she whirled in kinetic movement to  compete with the Edison film sequence. But that performance took place in 1894, four years after Sargent painted both portraits. 

The challenge of depicting the stirring motions of Spanish dance had intrigued Sargent since his first visit to Spain in 1879. Along with the two portraits and the video of the 1894 dance, there are numerous sketches in this gallery showing how Sargent attempted to capture both the emotional fervor of Spanish dance. Many of these truly "moving" drawings relate to his first great success as an artist, the wondrous painting El Jaleo.

At this point, the absence of El Jaleo, Sargent's greatest Spanish-themed work, from this exhibition needs to be addressed. Given the monumental size of El Jaleo, roughly 7 1/2 x 11 1/2 feet, and its importance to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, it cannot be transported to a traveling exhibition like Sargent and Spain.

The National Gallery and the Gardner Museum compensate for the understandable omission of El Jaleo by the presentation of Sargent's preliminary drawings for this mighty work of art and a post-painting sketch, along with a large - though not life-sized - color print of the painting.

John Singer Sargent,  Sketch of a Dancer, c. 1879–1881

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
John Singer Sargent's Sketch after "El Jaleo", 1882

Together with the portraits of Carmencita, the El Jaleo-related sketches by Sargent insures that the spirit of Spanish dance is well-represented in the exhibition.

If Spain became a spiritual home - or at least a place of pilgrimage for Sargent, it was because he engaged very closely with the the dramatic landscape of Spain in a way that he did not do with the countryside of France or that of Italy, excepting Venice for which he certainly felt a great attachment. 

Chief among the depictions of the spectacular topography of Spain is a magnificent work in oils, Sierra Nevada. This view of the Spanish mountain range, from a private collection, was painted in 1912. It is intriguing to speculate that Sargent's experience in this, his last, visit to Spain, may have inspired his subsequent excursion to the Rocky Mountains in 1916.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) 
John Singer Sargent's Sierra Nevada, 1912

From this feeling for the land of Spain came an empathy for its people and a very close friendship with the greatest Spanish painter of his day,  Joaquin Sorolla.

At the exhibition entrance, the curators of the National Gallery have placed an excellent map of Spain detailing the locations  visited by Sargent during his seven visits.  As can be seen thanks to the color-coded itinerary of his trips to Spain, 1879 to 1912, Sargent branched-out from study sessions in the Prado and the fabled Alhambra in the south of Spain to remote such as Santiago de Compostela and Camprodón to the island of Majorca.

Art lovers who have had the opportunity to study Sargent's watercolors will not be surprised to see outstanding examples of this medium on display in Sargent and Spain. Even with my memories of the exceptional works which the curators of the Philadelphia Museum of Art displayed in the 2017 exhibition on nineteenth century American watercolor painting, I was not prepared for the astonishing level of mastery which Sargent achieved in Spain.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 John Singer Sargent's Gourds, 1908

 Sargent ranged far and wide over Spain, painting everything except "castles of Spain." And it was in some of the most humble, tumble-down dwellings of the proud, impoverished citizens of that nation that Sargent found his piritual home. After years of painting the portraits of the Anglo-American high society, Sargent found true nobility in peasant hovels and the careworn courtyard of a seemingly unremarkable dwelling, the Casa del Chapiz.

John Singer Sargent, Spanish Roma Dwelling, 1912

John Singer Sargent, Courtyard, Casa del Chapiz, 1912–1913

Sargent did not return to Spain after his 1912 visit - but he took much of its soulful traditions with him. Sargent's later years were preoccupied with many projects, notably his moving tribute to the martyred soldiers of World War I.

It was in his murals for the Boston Public Library that the memories of his Spanish adventures were to resurface. These murals, devoted to the Triumph of Religion, emphasized allegorical and symbolical themes already under question by the early years of the twentieth century and now almost entirely ignored. Paul Johnson in his magisterial Art: a New History (2003) lavished well-deserved praise on Sargent but regarded the Boston murals as a "serious error of judgement" which prevented him from painting "great and original works."

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 The Sargent and Spain gallery display related to The Triumph of Religion murals created  for the Boston Public Library

Whatever modern appraisals may be, Sargent cared deeply about the murals and devoted himself to bring his commission to fulfillment. The final gallery of Sargent and Spain presents a selection of Sargent's studies for the murals,  based on religious masterpieces he had studied and copied in Spain. These are displayed in a magnificent setting (above) which does justice to them and to the completed murals in Boston.

John Singer Sargent, Sketch for the Sorrowful Mysteries, the Crucifixion—Torso (Boston Public Library Murals), 1903–1916

That being said, I do have to wonder what Sargent might have achieved if, instead of expending so much effort on the Boston murals, he had gone back to Spain for more explorations of that wondrous land. Perhaps he would have painted more portraits of the Spanish people, ordinary folk rather than grandees. If so, it is a great loss to us that he did not do so.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
 Detail of John Singer Sargent's Spanish Roma Woman, 1879–1882

And yet, on second thought, when we behold the portraits which Sargent did paint while in Spain, we must banish all thoughts of judgment and regret. Standing before these works in the galleries of Sargent and Spain can only be an occasion for gratitude and inspiration.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Anne Lloyd, All rights reserved                                                                                
introductory image: Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) John Singer Sargent's La Carmencita Dancing, ca. 1890. Oil on canvas:  54 x 35 in. (137.2 x 88.9 cm)  Private Collection

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of Sargent and Spain exhibition at The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925) Self-Portrait, 1906. Oil on canvas:27 1/2 × 20 7/8 in. (69.8 × 53 cm) Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Photograph of John Singer Sargent painting at the Alhambra. On view at the Sargent and Spain exhibition, National Gallery of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Detail of John Singer Sargent's copy after Diego Velazquez' Las Meninas, 1879. Oil on canvas:113.67 x 100.33 cm (44 3/4 x 39 1/2 in.) Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles, 2019.19

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) John Singer Sargent's copy after Velazquez' The Spinners ("Las Hilanderas"), 1879. Oil on canvas: 58.42 x 71.12 cm (23 x 28 in.) Alfred Beit Foundation, Russborough House, County Wicklow, Ireland, ABF.0558

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) John Singer Sargent's Cecil Harrison, c.1888.
Oil on canvas:172.8 x 83.6 cm (68 1/16 x 32 15/16 in.) Southampton City Art Gallery.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Gallery view of the Sargent and Spain exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., showing John Singer Sargent's La Carmencita, 1890.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) John Singer Sargent's La Carmencita, 1890. Oil on canvas: 229 x 140 cm (90 3/16 x 55 1/8 in.) Musée d’Orsay, Paris, Acquired in 1892.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Edison Manufacturing Company film of Carmencita the Spanish Dancer, 1894.William Heise, camerman. Duration: 21 seconds at 30 fps. Filmed March 1894 at Edison's Black Maria studio, West Orange, N.J. Collection of the Library of Congress, Washington D.C. #00694116

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) John Singer Sargent's La Carmencita Dancing, on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925) Sketch of a Dancer, c. 1879–1881 Graphite on white laid paper: overall: 12.54 x 17.62 cm (4 15/16 x 6 15/16 in.) Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond.
Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) John Singer Sargent's Sketch after "El Jaleo", 1882. Pen and ink on paper, laid down on paper: 9 x 13 in. (22.9 x 33 cm.) Private Collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) John Singer Sargent's Sierra Nevada, 1912.
Oil on canvas: overall: 55.88 x 64.77 cm (22 x 25 1/2 in.) Barty Smith

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) John Singer Sargent's Gourds, 1908.
Watercolor over graphite, with gouache, on paper: 33.5 x 50.01 cm (13 3/16 x 19 11/16 in.) Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by Special Subscription 09.822.

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925) Spanish Roma Dwelling, 1912.
Oil on canvas: 71.44 x 91.44 cm (28 1/8 x 36 in.) Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, gift of anonymous donor, 1931.13.

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925) Courtyard, Casa del Chapiz, 1912–1913. Oil on canvas: 71.12 x 91.44 cm (28 x 36 in.) Myron Kunin Collection of American Art Photo: Minneapolis Institute of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) The Sargent and Spain exhibition gallery showing display of preliminary sketches and photos related to The Triumph of Religion murals created by John Singer Sargent for the Boston Public Library.

John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925) Sketch for the Sorrowful Mysteries, the Crucifixion—Torso (Boston Public Library Murals), 1903–1916. Charcoal on paper: sheet: 47.94 x 61.44 cm (18 7/8 x 24 3/16 in.)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Sargent Collection—Gift of Miss Emily Sargent and Mrs. Violet Ormond in memory of their brother, John Singer Sargent. Photograph © 2022 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Detail of John Singer Sargent's Spanish Roma Woman, c. 1879–1882. Oil on canvas:73.66 x 60.01 cm (29 x 23 5/8 in.) Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George A. Hearn, 1910 (10.64.10)

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