John Singer Sargent’s travels in Spain are the subject of a major show at the National Gallery
Compassion. Claustrophobia. Originality. Why El Greco inspired so many great modern artists.
In other words, without Spain – and without its great artists El Greco (born in Crete but forever associated with Toledo), Velazquez, Murillo, Ribera, Zurbaran and Goya – French Romanticism and French Realism are all but unthinkable. So it is hardly surprising that Sargent decided after completing his training in Paris that it was high time for him to go to Spain.
Even more surprising is that he returned – first in 1892, then in 1895, 1903, 1908 (twice) and 1912. Even Manet only came once (and he returned early, blown away by Spanish cuisine, he says).
Sargent’s travels in Spain are the subject of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. The show, while somewhat dated in presentation, is a delight; The catalog is full of new research (including previously unpublished photographs by the artist), and you’ll see Sargent – a glorious painter – at his best.
Unfortunately, what you won’t see are “El Jaleo” and “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” the two large-scale masterpieces that Sargent painted in an entirely Hispanophile style. The first, a somber take on Spanish flamenco, is permanently installed in a Spanish-style cloister at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; the second, Sargent’s richly intricate homage to Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” (The Maids of Honour), is also in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Fortunately, compensations abound. The show begins with some living copies made by the young Sargent of works by El Greco, Velazquez and Goya. They are scattered among actual paintings by Spanish masters from the NGA’s collection, including Velazquez’s The Needlewoman, Goya’s Señora Sabasa Garcia, and a version of El Greco’s Saint Martin and the Beggar (a separate copy kept by Sargent) . in his London studio).
In Spain, freed from the onerous (but lucrative) obligation of making the big, good, and highly insured more attractive than they were, Sargent was able to express his curiosity and indulge his infatuation. He usually traveled and returned through Gibraltar on a steamboat. The most common places he traveled to were Madrid and Barcelona, but he also visited Granada, Ronda, Toledo and the island of Mallorca, as well as a number of less famous cities in northern Spain (along the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago), around Madrid and inland Catalonia and Andalusia.
Sargent was not an impressionist, if by that we mean a painter who depicted the world in discrete color units of similar size and weight. He was a tonalist. That is, he used color to reproduce the way the eye reads volume and space, registering subtle shifts in light and shadow. Combining the tonalism he had learned from Velazquez with vivid, lifelike color, he employed a dazzling variety of brushstrokes that seemed both fast and loose to convey not only the contingency of light, but the speed and richness of our embodied visual perception. “Embodied” is key: in Sargent’s best paintings, touch is everything.
Consider The Spanish Dance. This was not a painting painted on site. Sargent worked on it for several years after returning from his first trip to Spain. It features pairs of dancers performing outdoors at night, their movements illuminated by stars or perhaps fireworks (shades of Whistler). The dim light catches the white dresses of the dancers. Even more dramatically, it illuminates the next woman’s bare arms and thrown back neck.
Sargent doesn’t need to outline her chin or fingers. He simply uses darker patches of color to emphasize the lighted parts, which is both an efficient way of suggesting volume and matches the visual experience better than laborious outlines. That most of the painting is unfinished and difficult to read reinforces the sense of physicality – the sense of sharing the space of the picture in the same sparkling light where things dynamically shift in and out of visibility and the mind needs to reason what he can not see.
Although it was painted in Venice and not Spain, the curators included Sargent’s ‘Venetian Interior’ (ca. 1880-1882) because it shows what the young painter learned from Velazquez after his first visit to the Prado. It shows a gloomy hallway lit by bright light coming through an open door at the far end. On the right-hand wall of the hallway, Sargent captures light reflecting off paintings and doorframes with single brushstrokes, so dazzlingly deftly that it feels like tidings of good luck are being whispered in your ear.
The light in Spain is notoriously bright, and Sargent’s daytime images are as captivating as his dark interiors and nighttime images. A favorite image of mine, rarely seen outside of his home at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, is of a hospital in Granada. Sargent may have visited because a guidebook thought its Renaissance architecture was worth a detour. But the picture is not just a memento. It’s sweating in the Spanish heat, throbbing with boredom, buzzing with the quiet suffering of long-term inpatients. Sargent shows us an enclosed, receding room (not unlike the ‘Venetian interior’) with a foreshortened patient on a stretcher in the foreground. A supporting actor, each trapped in their own melancholic capsule, takes in the sun on the balcony railing. The wonder of the painting lies in the way Sargent translates “there and then” into “here and now.” He does it by touch.
Sargent’s oil paintings and his wonderful watercolors (which are spread throughout the exhibition) illustrate the differences between tonal painting and photography. Photographs provide traces of light fixed by chemicals. In a sense, they are contactless. Color is moved with a brush held in a hand connected to an arm controlled by a brain. Oil paint in particular settles on the surface. It has textures, miniature peaks and valleys, variations in direction, thickness and speed of application. It’s a substance that inspires a sense of immediacy for all of these reasons. You cannot guess the power of this immediacy by looking at the images accompanying this article, which are themselves photographs. You have to see the paintings with your own eyes.
Prepare to be amazed.
The show also includes landscapes, portraits and beautiful scenes from family life captured spontaneously. For example, “Mosquito Nets” by the Detroit Institute of Arts shows Sargent’s sister Emily and her friend Eliza Wedgwood reading in a room in a villa they rented in the mountain village of Valldemossa. Their heads are protected by framed nets reminiscent of domed hair dryers in a salon. It’s such a beautiful intimate scene, and like so much of Sargent’s work, just looking at it makes you realize that you’ve never seen anything like it in a museum before.
His depictions of Roma dwellings, olive groves, fishermen on Mallorca and farms from his last trip to Spain in 1912 are bravura. In all of these images, the complexity of the light, often speckled by vines, thatched roofs, or olive tree leaves, allows Sargent a freedom he did not allow himself in his delicately observed portraits and exacting architectural studies. To see him capture the fractured, splashing quality of light on rough-painted walls, or use dry brush, motion, smudge and twist of the wrist to depict sloping, mottled hills is to be in the presence not only of mastery, but of to feel freedom. Sargent felt free in Spain, perhaps in more ways than one. He expressed this freedom with the traveller’s willingness to take a look, capture and travel on. Nothing in his best images feels edited.
Sargent, who is the subject of a new biography – ‘The Grand Affair’ – by Paul Fisher, was to painting what Roger Federer was to tennis. A master. It’s fair to say that he wasn’t a profound artist in general; he was too enchanted by the surface of things. (“The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” which exudes an eerie insight, is a rare exception.) But few people have more control over the process of moving paint until it resembles the look and feel of things. Isn’t virtuosity, combined with nonchalance, at least its own form of profundity?
Sargent and Spain is at the National Gallery of Art through January 2nd. nga.gov.