John Singer Sargent in Spain at the Legion of Honor

Originally published in the Marina Times San Francisco in February 2023

The Legion of Honor presents Sargent and Spain, the first exhibition to explore the influence of Spanish culture on American expatriate artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). In keeping with many artists of his era, portrait painter John Singer Sargent sought inspiration from Spanish painters.  In his early twenties, the artist began a series of visits to the country during which time he created a significant body of work.

Sargent, Travel and the Spanish Influence

John Singer Sargent was the definitive society portraitist of his era. His canvases bore a distinction for the individuality he portrayed in his sitters and their opulent fabrics represented in loose, gestural brushstrokes.  He was born in Florence, Italy to American parents and received an art education Rome, Florence and Paris. He traveled to Spain from his homes in Paris (1874-1882) and London (1882-1925). Sargent’s travels took him to Majorca, Madrid, Toledo, Cuenca, Seville and Granada in the south, and Camprodon and Santiago de Compostela in the north. Travel provided a wellspring of discovery and inspiration that complimented Sargent’s work.

Velázquez and the Spanish Masters

Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco represent just a few of the artists that became the focal point of academic study by up-and-coming painters during the Impressionist era and Sargent was no exception.

Sargent and Spain is organized in six sections that trace the artist’s multifaceted approaches to portraying the landscape and culture of Spain.  Velázquez and the Spanish Masters features Sargent’s powerful early oils dating from his first trip to Spain. Inspired by visits to the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Sargent learned through the tradition of imitation.  The artist copied famous works by the masters, and learned to adapt the palette and brushwork of these paintings, especially those of his aesthetic hero, Diego Velázquez.  Contrasting these copied studies, the gallery will include paintings by the Old Masters whom Sargent admired.

Dance and Music

This gallery is dedicated to Sargent’s admiration and enthusiasm for performing arts, specifically Spanish Roma peoples’ flamenco dance, dress and music. Paintings include his full-length oil portraits of the acclaimed Spanish dancer Carmen Daucet Moreno, known as La Carmencita.  A series of spectacular studies include Study for the Spanish Dancer, an 1880-1881 watercolor.  Fabric and its movement, one of Sargent’s signature themes, becomes lively motion in the jagged, swirling lines of dress–a figure emerging from muted earth tones into the light of the foreground.

Architecture and Gardens

The next three sections highlight travels throughout Spain and the countryside Sargent brought to life in brilliant oils and watercolors. Both rural and urban locales were a fascination, and views of Spanish architecture, royal palaces and environs such as the Alhambra and Generalife, located in Granada, are captured by Sargent. Majorcan Fisherman, a 1908 oil on canvas, is an homage to light; refracted through a makeshift roof, the brilliant light as bright cross hatchings amongst shadows rendered in rapid, painterly strokes of browns blues and oranges. The fisherman in the foreground looks at the viewer with a friendly, informal stance, leaning on a fence in front of the brilliant blue of the ocean. The artist had an intense fascination with Mediterranean island’s dazzling and varied terrain, lush fruits and foliage, which he explored during his two visits there.

Religion and Spirituality

The exhibition concludes with a gallery dedicated to Sargent’s interest in religion and spirituality. Spanish Catholic religious imagery, soaring cathedrals, crucifixions and Madonnas reflect the artist’s appreciation for local iconography. Some of the studies were preparatory works made in advance for Sargent’s ambitious mural cycle at the Boston Public Library, the Triumph of Religion (1890-1919). Sargent’s personal collection of Spanish devotional sculptures represented in photographs will be on display as additional source materials for the library project.

Sargent and Spain will be the exclusive west coast venue for this exhibition. This never-before-seen slice of the famed artist’s life re-evaluates his era and work, in the process exposing the bold, diverse accomplishments of a charismatic talent who was much more than a society portrait painter.

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