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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.