Sargent and Spain: Study for The Spanish Dance
Study for “The Spanish Dance,” John Singer Sargent, c. 1879–1880, oil on canvas; overall: 48.58 x 39.69 cm (19 1/8 x 15 5/8 in.); framed: 60.33 x 51.44 x 6.35 cm (23 3/4 x 20 1/4 x 2 1/2 in.); Private collection

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When I moved to D.C. several years ago, one of my hideouts was the Smithsonian American Art Museum. There, secluded in a side room on the second floor, hung John Singer Sargent’s “Spanish Dancer.” Head thrown back, one arm outstretched, the dancer at once emerges from and recedes into the canvas’s enveloping shadows. Outside, car horns and sirens blared, but in that room the world was quiet. Sitting on a chair before 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 deftness of Sargent’s hand in “Spanish Dancer” is elaborated, finely, in the National Gallery of Art’s current exhibition Sargent and Spain, a 140-work survey of the artist’s travels throughout the country. Dazzling in its textures and broad in its outlook, the selection situates one, as only Sargent can, apart from and at the blazing center of life. 

Born in Florence in 1856 to expatriates Fitzwilliam Sargent, a prominent physician, and Mary Newbold, a skilled pianist, Sargent lived in a wholly cosmopolitan world. Traveling to Madrid, among other cities, was not unique in his milieu, but what he gathered from his time there was. The artist’s photographs and preparatory drawings, dotted throughout the show, reveal a man enamored by the world around him. Sargent’s teacher, Charles-Emile-Auguste Durand, stressed the importance of close study echoing the 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. “[Durand] taught Sargent the importance of tonal values, of light and dark,” says Richard Ormond, who co-curated the show with Sarah Cash and Elaine Kilmurray. “If you could master values of light and dark, he learned, you could recreate reality.” 

A room in the Sargent and Spain exhibit; Credit: Sarah Marloff

In the show’s sumptuous portrait “La Carmencita,” Sargent recreates the reality of a divisive dancer. A student of the bolero school, Carmencita captivated audiences across Europe and the United States in the late 19th century, touring with vaudeville troops and novelty shows. While many reveled in Carmencita’s gaiety—captured brilliantly in the exhibition’s companion portrait, wherein the fringe of her shawl is a kind of plumage—some critics, according to the Sargent and Spain exhibition book, found her “barbarian,” “repulsive,” evoking a “perverse grace.” In Sargent’s hands, though, the dancer is self-contained, exuding pride in her sure, bone-straight stance, her lush canary yellow dress glittering under a fine layer of embroidered gauze. The boldness of the work is itself a statement of status, lending her, as Kilmurray remarks, “dignity and gravity.”

Walking through the galleries, one is struck by Sargent’s draftsmanship, capturing, almost obsessively, the world through which he moved. In his studies of Spanish dancers, displayed elegantly in the exhibition’s second room, furious lines denote bodies in motion. A hurried mark stands in for a hand, an undulating flourish for a contorted spine. 

His 1925 obituary, written in the Times of London, called him a man “of great nervous sensibility.” One of his sitters years earlier recalled him working “as one possessed.” Sargent’s immense facility with paint was doubtless hard won but, in his mind at least, never fully realized. Edwin Howland Blashfield, a fellow painter and friend of the artist, recalled: “While bending over one of his own pictures, in an exhibition, [Sargent] was heard to mutter, ‘Well, I had better go home and learn to draw.’” 

Sargent’s eye for detail comes through in his depiction of Roma men and women. Historically marginalized, the Roma were more often exoticized by artists than truly known. Sargent could have veered into escapist tropes, playing up whimsy at the expense of depth. Instead, he saw the Roma as people, replete with lives beyond the frame. 

One room of the show features a young Roma woman dressed in a fiery coral robe looking out at the viewer. Her stare is haunting, immediate. Unlike the villagers painted on the adjacent wall, weaving under the shade of an olive tree or looking after livestock, the young woman demands attention. Far from sentimental, she is fully formed and wholly realized, not unlike Sargent’s portraits of New England’s upper crust. She has a rich sense of self, one that is evocatively, undeniably alive. David R. Ibata, a D.C.-based artist, said of the show “I don’t think Sargent could have painted the Roma people the way that he did without empathy.”

John Singer Sargent, “Spanish Roma Dancer,” c. 1879-1880; QuickSilver Photographers LLC

In her research for the exhibition, Cash, an associate curator at the National Gallery, assembled an advisory group of scholars from the Roma community to reflect on the show’s collection. Their responses, displayed under a selection of paintings, pair well with Sargent’s work. In one, Miguel Angel Vargas, an art historian and Roma activist, responds to Mariano Fernandez Santiago, better known as Chorrojumo—a famous Roma resident who posed for and escorted tourists to 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,” Vargas writes, “nor that each Gitano [Roma person] bears the weight of representing his people out in the world.” It’s that weight, one far too often lost on the viewer, that comes into full view in the exhibition. 

The show’s title, Sargent and Spain, was intentional, too. “Sargent in Spain” would privilege the artist and make the country merely a backdrop, Cash says. In “Sargent and Spain” the two are on equal footing, the country worthwhile in its own right. This seems an apt characterization of the show, one infused with cobalt blues, scenes of fisherman in motley light, performers lost in rhythms unheard, an emaciated Christ displayed opposite bursting pomegranates. The effect is not an essential Spain; rather, it is a peopled Spain, a country teeming with life and drenched in light—dim, stark, warm, dappled—but always fluidly handled, the product of careful study. 

Sargent was an artist for whom banalities mattered little. He was keenly interested in how people—dancers, weavers, farmhands—lived, at times consumed by work, at others lost in thought. Vernon Lee, in her 1927 tribute to Sargent, remarked on the artist’s flair: “His life was not merely in painting, but in the more and more intimate understanding and enjoying [of] the world around him … which the work of his incomparable hand enables some of us also to understand and enjoy, if only in part.” 

“The Spanish Dance” in one of the show’s opening rooms is a work unlike any other in the collection. Suffused with evening light, the composition is difficult to discern. Three women, dressed in deep raspberry shawls and striped, black-and-white skirts, dance before a crowd, their forms barely visible in the allusive canvas. Passages of light sweep across the work but reveal little, as in the early stages of waking, only glimmers appear. On the opposite wall, sketches of the dancers reveal Sargent’s careful, meticulous consideration of each figure in the scene, figures lying, lurking, just beyond the visible. Perhaps it’s that space Sargent’s work allows for—the loose brushwork giving way to brilliant light—that makes his “Spanish Dancer” a kind of refuge. In her presence, I did not have to have all the answers, I could simply follow its fluidity, lost in the dance. 

Sargent and Spain is on display at the National Gallery of Art through Jan. 2, 2023. Free.