WASHINGTON — John Singer Sargent’s (American, 1856–1925) decades-long captivation with Spain yielded a remarkable body of work depicting the rich and diverse culture he encountered. Sargent and Spain is the first exhibition to reveal the depth of this engagement and the intentional approach the artist adopted there. Presenting some 140 oils, watercolors, drawings and never-before published photographs, several almost certainly taken by the artist himself, the exhibition is on view from October 2 through January 2, 2023, in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art.
Sargent left a rich visual record of his time in Spain — more than 225 oils, watercolors and drawings, supplemented by sketchbooks, scrapbooks and nearly 200 photographs that he collected or possibly took himself. During seven extended visits between 1879 and 1912, he depicted stunning landscape views, detailed architectural studies, local peoples and traditions, dynamic scenes of flamenco dance and everyday moments of Spanish Roma life. He copied paintings, especially by Diego Velazquez (1599–1660), in museums and was intrigued by art in churches, which influenced his expansive murals for the Boston Public Library.
“Sargent and Spain examines, for the first time, how Sargent engaged with that country, in all its diversity, and depicted it in paintings, drawings and photographs,” said Director of the National Gallery of Art Kaywin Feldman. “We are deeply grateful to Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, leading authorities on the artist and authors of the John Singer Sargent catalogue raisonne, who worked closely with Sarah Cash, associate curator of American and British paintings, on this presentation. I would like to extend our thanks to our lenders for their willingness to share their treasured works of art as well as to the Buffy and William Cafritz Family Fund, the Virginia Cretella Mars Endowment Fund for the International Exchange of Art, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Director’s Circle of the National Gallery of Art for providing additional support that allowed us to present this exhibition. We are also grateful to the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities for their continued dedication to the National Gallery’s exhibitions and programs. I would also like to thank Bank of America for their sponsorship and long-standing support.”
About the Exhibition
Arranged in six thematic sections, Sargent and Spain traces the artist’s many and varied approaches to depicting Spain. The first section examines the young Sargent’s immersion in Spanish art — especially by Velazquez — at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, where he learned to interpret the placement of the figure in shallow space, the simplicity of the silhouette against the neutral background, and the restrained palette. In addition to paintings and prints by Velazquez and other earlier artists, Sargent was drawn to works by several Spanish contemporaries who also influenced his artistic style, particularly works by Joaquin Sorolla and the slightly older Mariano Fortuny Marsal.
The second section reveals Sargent’s interest in depicting the performing arts he enjoyed in Spain. From 1879 to 1881 and again around 1890, this artist-connoisseur produced an extraordinary series of images of Spanish dancers and musicians, particularly those inspired by the traditions of Andalusia (southern Spain). Among the works on view are the paintings The Spanish Dance (c. 1879–1882) and Spanish Roma Dancer (two versions, both dated c. 1879–1880), the watercolor Spanish Dancer (c. 1880–1881), sketches and drawings related to El Jaleo (1882) and Spanish Dancer (c. 1880–1881), as well as images (1890) of the celebrated performer Carmen Dauset Moreno, known as La Carmencita.
As Sargent traveled throughout Spain, he studied and depicted subjects from north (Santiago de Compostela and Camprodon) to south (Granada), and out to the island of Majorca, which fascinated him. He was captivated by both rural and urban locales, exploring the countryside, coasts, architecture, gardens and the inhabitants he met. Along the way, during the course of three decades, he created a comprehensive portrayal of the Spanish landscape — its flora and fauna; its people and their animals; its ports and ships. These works capture the country’s intrinsic character and spirit of place, as well as the distinctive qualities of its light and atmosphere.
These works are featured in the next three sections of the exhibition, which includes highlights such as architectural elements in royal palaces, notably the Alhambra and Generalife, and their surroundings; the graceful arches, colonnades and courtyards he found in the cities he visited; as well as the lush fruits and foliage of Majorca (he would soon adapt the latter for the Triumph of Religion murals at the Boston Public Library). His depictions, in both oil and watercolor, focus on the clarity of line; the interrelationship between exterior and interior space, ornament and pattern; and the dramatic and shifting play of light, shade and watery reflection.
The exhibition concludes with an exploration of the religious imagery that occupied Sargent, especially in relation to his commission to paint the Triumph of Religion murals at the Boston Public Library. His engagement with Spanish Catholicism includes lively oil sketches — recording architectural spaces and designs — as well as objects he collected and represented. Among the works on view are studies of soaring cathedrals, the Crucifixion and the Madonna that he made in preparation for the mural cycle. The final gallery in the exhibition offers photo murals, a reading area and an interactive kiosk where visitors can examine one of Sargent’s scrapbooks.