The American expatriate artist John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) possessed a broader, richer, and more multifaceted talent than his reputation as the pre-eminent society portrait painter of the Edwardian era would lead us to believe. “Sargent and Spain” presents the viewer with a new appreciation for Sargent’s interest in painting various subjects using a light impressionistic brushwork technique. More important than the artist’s technical flair is Sargent’s ability to capture the vivid essence of Spain, its people, and its architecture.
Born in Florence to American parents, Sargent was trained in Paris before he moved to London and spent most of his life in Europe. Over 30 years, between 1879-1913, Sargent made seven visits to Spain and the nearby island of Majorca. “Sargent and Spain” highlights the artist’s outstanding body of work that records his travels to 27 cities in Spain. Sargent was inspired by Spain’s rich culture to produce urban and rural landscapes, marine scenes, architectural studies, and pictures of everyday Spanish life and its people.
“Sargent and Spain,” now on view at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum, the exclusive West Coast venue for this exhibition, presents over 120 oils, watercolors, drawings, and never-before-published photographs (several almost certainly taken by the artist). It is divided into six thematic sections. The first examines a youthful Sargent’s immersion in earlier Spanish artists, including Velázquez (don’t overlook Velázquez’s “The Needlewoman” c. 1640-50).
Sargent loved music and was a talented pianist. The second section, “Dance and Music,” reveals Sargent’s interest in Spanish dancers and musicians inspired by the traditions of the Roma population and the southern area of Andalusia, particularly flamenco music. Several paintings are outstanding, “The Spanish Dance” (c. 1879–1882) and “Spanish Roma Dancer” (two versions, both dated c. 1879–1880), the watercolor “Spanish Dancer” (c. 1880–1881), as well as the portrait of the celebrated performer Carmen Dauset Moreno, “La Carmencita” (1890). The theatrical, flamboyant Carmencita in a gorgeous golden dress is highlighted against a dark, mysterious background.
Sargent’s love of Spanish architecture reveals an exciting aspect of the artist’s talent in the section “Architecture and Gardens.” His works of Spanish royal palaces, like the Alhambra and Generalife, are beautiful. The impressionistic “A Marble Fountain at Aranjuez” (1912), with its watery reflections and lively treatment of sunshine and shadows, is one of my favorites.
“The Land and Its People” depicts Sargent’s interest in the Spanish people and their environs, including his realistic portrayals of the Roma people of Granada. The paintings in this section include images of Sargent’s travels throughout Spain, from the panoramic view of the snowcapped peaks in the picturesque “Sierra Nevada” (1912) to the shadowed stable filled with mules in “Stable at Cuenca” (1903). The sun-kissed Mediterranean island is captured by the section on “Majorca,” with flat close-ups of fruit and foliage, as well as the brightly lit scene, “Majorcan Fisherman” (1908).
“Religion and Spirituality,” the final part of the show, left me a little flat. It contains Sargent’s studies and drawings of cathedrals, crucifixions, and Madonnas that he made in preparation for painting the mural cycle at the Boston Public Library, the “Triumph of Religion” (1890–1919). It would have been preferable to end this first-rate show on a more exciting note.
“Sargent and Spain” proves at least one crucial thing: John Singer Sargent’s artistic importance is more expansive than his luxurious portraits suggest, as pleasing and popular as they may be. Seeing the body of Sargent’s work at the exhibit was a revelation.
“Sargent and Spain” is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
The Legion of Honor Museum has an extensive collection of ancient art, European art, decorative art, and sculpture, including its well-regarded Rodin galleries. The inspiring Beaux Art–style building, designed by George Applegarth, opened in 1924. It was modeled after the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. Located majestically on a bluff in Lincoln Park overlooking the Golden Gate and the Pacific Ocean, it’s one of the finest sights in San Francisco. It alone is always worth a visit.
By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2023 All Rights Reserved