When I moved to DC several years ago, one of my hideouts was the Smithsonian American Art Museum. There, isolated in a side room on the second floor, suspended John Singer Sargent“Spanish dancer”. Head thrown back, one arm outstretched, the dancer emerges and sinks at the same time into the enveloping darkness of the canvas. Outside, horns and sirens blared, but in this room the world was silent. Sitting in a chair in front of the monumental canvas, I followed the line of the dancer’s luminous silk skirt – a symphony of cool grays and whites – the fringe of her billowing shawl, her single gold bracelet catching the light.
The skill of Sargent’s hand in “Spanish Dancer” is elaborated, finely, in the current exhibition at the National Gallery of Art Sargent and Spain, a survey of 140 works on the artist’s travels across the country. Dazzling in its textures and expansive in its outlook, the selection places you, as only Sargent can, apart and at the flamboyant center of life.
Born in Florence in 1856 from expatriates Fitzwilliam Sargentan eminent physician, and Mary Newbold, a talented pianist, Sargent lived in a totally cosmopolitan world. Traveling to Madrid, among other cities, was not unique in its milieu, but what he gathered from his time there was. The artist’s preparatory photographs and drawings, scattered throughout the exhibition, reveal a man in love with the world around him. Sargent’s teacher, Charles-Emile-Auguste Durandunderlined the importance of an in-depth study echoing the Spanish painter of the seventeenth century Diego Velasquez. “[Durand] taught Sargent the importance of tonal values, light and dark,” says Richard Ormondwho co-hosted the show with Sarah Cash and Elaine Kilmurray. “If you could master the values of light and dark, he learned, you could recreate reality.”
In the sumptuous portrait of the show “La Carmencita”, Sargent recreates the reality of a divisive dancer. student of the bolero school, Carmencita captivated audiences across Europe and the United States in the late 19th century, touring with vaudeville troupes and novelty shows. While many reveled in the cheerfulness of Carmencita, brilliantly captured in the exhibition’s accompanying portrait, in which the fringe of her shawl is a kind of plumage, some critics, according to Sargent and Spain exhibition book, finds it “barbaric”, “repulsive”, evoking a “perverse grace”. In Sargent’s hands, however, the dancer is self-contained, exuding pride in her secure and upright stance, her lush canary-yellow dress shimmering beneath a thin layer of embroidered gauze. The audacity of the work is itself a statement of status, giving it, as Kilmurray observes, “dignity and gravity”.
Walking through the galleries, one is struck by Sargent’s talent as a draftsman, capturing, almost obsessively, the world in which he moves. In his studies of Spanish dancers, presented elegantly in the second room of the exhibition, furious lines denote moving bodies. A hasty mark replaces a hand, an undulating flourish a twisted spine.
His 1925 obituary, written in the London time, called him a man “of great nervous sensitivity”. One of his models from years earlier recalled working “like a maniac.” Sargent’s immense ease with painting was undoubtedly hard-won but, in his mind at least, never fully realized. Edwin Howland Blashfieldfellow painter and friend of the artist, says: “Looking at one of his paintings, in an exhibition, [Sargent] was heard mumbling, “Well, I better go home and learn to draw.”
Sargent’s attention to detail shines through in his depiction of Roma men and women. Historically marginalized, the Roma have more often been exoticized by artists than truly known. Sargent could have veered into escapist tropes, playing fantasy at the expense of depth. Instead, he saw Roma as people, full of lives beyond the frame.
A room in the performance features a young Roma woman in a fiery coral dress staring at the viewer. His gaze is haunting, immediate. Unlike the villagers painted on the adjacent wall, weaving in the shade of an olive tree or tending to cattle, the young woman demands attention. Far from sentimental, it is fully formed and fully realized, much like Sargent’s portraits of the upper crust of New England. She has a rich sense of self, an evocative, undeniably alive sense. David R. Ibataa DC-based artist, said of the show “I don’t think Sargent could have painted Roma the way he did without empathy.”
In her research for the exhibition, Cash, Associate Curator at the National Gallery, brought together an advisory group of scholars from the Roma community to brainstorm the exhibition’s collection. Their responses, displayed under a selection of paintings, pair well with Sargent’s work. In, Miguel Angel Vargasart historian and Roma activist, responds to Mariano Fernandez Santiagobetter known as Chorrojumo—a famous Roma resident who posed for and escorted tourists to the Alhambra and is depicted in two small canvases in the show: “They [Chorrojumo’s critics] didn’t understand that you were simply doing what was necessary to provide for your family,” writes Vargas, “nor that every Gitano [Roma person] carries the weight of representing his people in the world. It is this weight, all too often lost for the spectator, which fully appears in the exhibition.
The title of the show, Sargent and Spain, was also intentional. “Sargent in Spain” would privilege the artist and make the country a mere backdrop, says Cash. In “Sargent and Spain”, the two are on an equal footing, the country is worthwhile in itself. It seems an apt characterization of the spectacle, one steeped in cobalt blue, fisherman scenes in motley light, performers lost in unheard of rhythms, an emaciated Christ displayed facing exploding pomegranates. The effect is not essential Spain; rather it is a populated Spain, a country teeming with life and bathed in light – dark, austere, warm, dappled – but always handled with fluidity, the product of careful study.
Sargent was an artist for whom banalities mattered little. He was keenly interested in how people – dancers, weavers, farm workers – lived, sometimes absorbed in work, sometimes lost in thought. Vernon Leein his 1927 tribute to Sargent, noted the artist’s flair: “His life was not simply in painting, but in the increasingly intimate understanding and pleasure [of] the world around him… that the work of his incomparable hand allows some of us too to understand and appreciate, if only in part.
“The Spanish Dance” in one of the show’s opening rooms is a work like no other in the collection. Bathed in evening light, the composition is difficult to discern. Three women, dressed in deep raspberry shawls and black and white striped skirts, dance in front of a crowd, their forms barely visible in the allusive canvas. Passages of light pass through the work but reveal little, for in the early stages of awakening only glimmers appear. On the opposite wall, sketches of the dancers reveal Sargent’s careful and meticulous examination of every character in the scene, from the figures lying down, hidden, just beyond visible. It is perhaps this space that Sargent’s work allows – the loose brush giving way to a brilliant light – that makes his “Spanish dancer” a kind of refuge. In her presence, I didn’t have to have all the answers, I could simply follow her fluidity, lost in the dance.
Sargent and Spain is on display at the National Gallery of Art until January 2, 2023. nga.gov. Free.