EL JALEO by John Singer Sargent

What was missing?

Today I sauntered over to the National Gallery of Art to see the current exhibition, “SARGENT AND SPAIN.” I absolutely love Sargent. He is one of the greatest painters of all time, bar none, in my Art Look book. But as far as the exhibition at the NGA, if you are trekking from afar, save your time and money and just pick up the catalogue or look at the major pictures in the show online. There was something majorly missing in this show. I am surprised the curators did not insist upon its inclusion, and that was Sargent’s greatest work that demonstrated not only his love for the Spanish culture, and its heritage and style of remarkable painters—Valezquez, El Greco, Zubaran, Goya and the like—but also his passion for the one art form that got his painterly blood flowing at a breakneck speed—the Flamenco. The greatest work I am talking about here is El Jaleo. It must be pining away up there in Boston, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, separated from its otherwise supporting works that demonstrate Sargent’s deep understanding and love for Spain.

El Jaleo is missing.” I said to myself walking through the galleries, hoping to see it just around the corner, showcased by itself by virtue of its sheer size (over 8 feet tall and 11 feet wide). “Where the hell is the thing?” I thought I was temporarily blinded, mesmerized by some other Sargent masterpiece. I must have walked right past it. But no. It was not there. It was absent. I showed up, and it did not. I might think the experts know better, and force myself to take this sitting down—or walking through the galleries, as the case may be.

In 1992 the National Gallery exhibited El Jaleo on loan from the Gardner Museum. But friends, that was 30 years ago. Some people perusing this current exhibition were not even born back then, even though one can “pull it up” on the internet as a happening just the other day. (See here) If the curators went to all this trouble, this time around, and they did, to amass these examples of Sargent and Spain, they could have taken a bit more fervent aesthetic determinism to to get that major thing down here. What was the big deal? Boston is only 439 miles away. Could have got it down here in a day.

This tainted my perusal.

I would be lying if I said this did not really matter to me, the fact that El Jaleo was missing. There were clearly other great works in there; surprising works; remarkable works. Why did it bug me so much? One reason is I have an equal passion for Spain. I have been there over a dozen times, and I never tire of the richness I experience there. I have been to the Flamenco in Valencia, Barcelona, and Seville. I have been to the Alhambra in Granada. The white ships and glimmering sea of Mallorca stay seared in my mind’s eye. I have gazed mesmerized by the Velazquez in the El Prado in Madrid. I have sauntered the medieval streets of Toledo and looked face to face at the El Greco masterpieces there. I have breathed in the Spanish air which got into my blood just like it did for Sargent. One cannot ever forget the way Spain captures the whole soul of you. Once you are taken over, you cannot ever go back to a less passionate encounter with Life.

Going to a Flamenco dance is ever unforgettable as nothing else. First of all, one usually goes for a meal in conjunction with the show. And the meal does not start until 9PM. It goes on for a few hours. The dancers do not even come out until midnight. By then everyone is well satiated with good cheer and good food and good company. Then the passion starts. You cannot believe it. No one is tired. The people are just getting warmed up. And the dancers! It is as if they have descended upon you from some force of nature, like a hurricane or a tempest of the heart. One cannot resist the onslaught from the core of something joyous just to be alive as humans. Ecstasy times a hundred would not be exaggerating.

Sargent hits the mark every time.

If the mark of a great painter is that he can lay down strokes of paint that capture the exact vision he or she is having in the mind’s eye, in the entire picture of form and beauty that inspires and uplifts us to remarkable realms, then Sargent in Spain was truly great. While I was bereaved over the absence of El Jaleo, I was enthralled by the dynamism of Sargent’s sumptuous strokes that hit their mark every time, and defined the moment with the effortless application of immaculately precise paint. Drawn with the speed of light it seems, to tell the truth, these paintings of the heart of Spain come forth to take us there. We are there, for a moment, and Sargent knows only a moment is needed. His skill is such that a whole venue of passionate vision can be transmitted in seven or eight seconds of a distilled viewing. His genius is self evident. His communication is lacking nothing. What the thing is and how the thing was painted meld into One, and Sargent knows truth is beauty. He tells it like no other. Are we not the gracious beneficiaries of his acute powers of observation translated into his angelic handling of a paint brush? Always we are that, for sure, in the sacred presence of any of Sargent’s works.

That Sargent submitted himself to the test of the Spanish Master Painters before him is made obvious by this show. But what may not have been so obvious is that he transcended them. The aristocracy of the 17th century Spanish courts is morphed into the upper class industrialist families of the 19th century in Sargent’s oeuvre outside of Spain. Yet the lessons learned from the Spanish Masters is undeniable and indelible. Las Meninas by Velazquez is a precursor of his doorway lit scene of equaling power, as seen in his Venetian Interior. There is an atmosphere of strictly in the moment transcendence. The two ladies in this foreground of engagement are sucking us into the scene. We cannot help but want to know them. What are they all about? The “hand on the hip” gestures us to come closer.

Las Meninas by Velazquez
Venetian Interior by Sargent

Get to know who they are, a kind of mystery women who uphold our curiosity long enough to get us to notice their aristocratic qualities. Obviously servants are in the background, crouching in readiness for the next task of attendance. The woman in the open portal heralds in the brilliance of light coming into the interior. The side door not in the picture, to the right, sheds a bolt of brilliant yellow light from the bottom right corner of the picture. There is as much given to the richness of this space by these self-assured damsels, most likely upper class Venetians, as the darkened royal retinue of Phillip the Fourth gives to the dim-lit courtly staging painted in his Royal Castle in Madrid.

The Common Scenes of Earthly Delights.

That Sargent loved to paint women is obvious. Even before women’s suffrage and liberation, his women have a self assured power. They are upright and certain in their demeanor and poise, even if they are from the more “lowly” classes. This is one of my favorite Sargent paintings in the National Gallery, not in this Spanish showing, but it demonstrates a point made clearly in the landscape genre and the scenes of the Roma people contained in this Spanish exhibition. Always superb in his facility to lay down paint with a few swift strokes that define and capture the gestures, both inner and outer, of everyday life—Sargent is a people’s painter. He does flatter, but he flatters in such a way as to elevate and ennoble the human spirit within the visceral beauties of our corporeal nature. The young boy in the scene dawdles behind, pulling up his pant legs, as grandma gives a loving look to keep track of her young charge. A tender moment indeed. And very real.

The Oyster Gatherers by John Singer Sargent

The scenes of the Roma people in Spain, their daily affairs, their proximity to the earth, to nature, to animals, their gestures of movements in the observation of Sargent’s pictorial genius translated into paint, come forth to enlighten us. Sargent’s love for the common people as well as for the privileged people shines through in these Spanish paintings. The peasant women wash the clothes (below). In a painting from the collection of the National Gallery not in the show (above), women of three generations ambulate across the beach on a cloud swept day to collect their fruits de mer. A slice of life—what can be more lovingly depicted than these tender scenes?

Women Washing Clothes

Animals to paint home about.

Horses in Spain by Sargent

Most of Sargent’s career still spanned the era of the horse. Not until the last decades of his life was the automobile introduced. He was basically a nineteenth century man, on the cusp of the industrial revolution, but never fully stepped into modernism. He died in 1925 in London, mostly celebrated as a portraitist of high society. But yearnings rumbled within Sargent to break free of that stereotype. In his more liberated moments his passions leak out of that conservative box of respectability and commissions. This show at the NGA clearly shows his modernist tendencies. The freedom of the brush is pushing to the edge of abstractions. One step short of expressionism, Sargent’s brushwork sits on the edge of Modern Art’s inevitable explosion.

Stable Scene by Sargent

This boldly brushed scene goes for a quick depiction of a clearly nineteenth century moment—the stable that houses man’s main mode of transportation in the late nineteenth century, the horse. The bony mule in the foreground is a Quixotic reminder of Spain’s impoverished but noble past demeanor. The peasants are truly peasants. The contrast in this painting is one of the greatest in Sargent’s choice of subjects. Telling it like it is, and far from the inner circles of London’s elite upper classes, the painter gives us not only the visuals of a vivid equine moment, but also hints at the smells of leather, straw, dung, and what have you that puts together our response to the rawness of Spain’s place in this life. One meets the earth here, and Sargent knows it.

More on the cusp of the abstract, the free flowing nature of paint, and “the hell with all confines of upper crusty patronage,” these Spanish works express his more leisure moments of creative license . He comes out from under the stringencies of his craft’s overbearing expectations. One could say these paintings are the precursors of Jackson Pollock if you know what you are looking at. Sargent wants to jump into the ecstasies of pure paint, and he does—inasmuch as he could in these forays into an Iberian world.

Wild Olive Tree Roots by Sargent

How far did Sargent have to go to paint a piece of turf? One step short of a total renunciation, you can bet he thought about it. Where could the paint go from here? He had the emotional stop off moment of El Jaleo, but this takes us a huge leap forward in the dissolution of depiction. There were rumblings in the brushes of European painters to give the pureness of the medium its due. Nature has a design, and yes, the act of painting has one too—a nature of its own. What can you make of this but a total leap into the possibilities of abstraction? Music had long been playing in the free flowing realms of pure forms of sound. Now painting was about to claim its connection to equally pure color, line and shape. Sargent was a generation too soon to go there. And perhaps the lucrative nature of portraits of the wealthy kept him in the repertoire as the chronicler of the rich and famous. The Warhol or the Pollock of his day—which way would he go? Mostly toward the rich and famous. He was the Warhol of his day. But secretly he reveled in a small piece of turf.

The geometry of Islam intrigued him.

From 711 to 1492 Islam’s dominance on the Iberian Peninsula can be hardly denied. It’s contribution to Spain’s cultural heritage springs forth in such places as the Alhambra in Granada. Sargent was fascinated with the other worldly spaces, the amazing geometry and the decorative acrobatics of the Alhambra. I must say I was as well when I went there in 2018. There is something spiritually gripping in this encounter with Islamic Spain. It takes us to a place of geometric nirvana.

The Alhambra Courtyard by Sargent

Many a decorative motif that he picked up in the Alhambra at Granada entered into his later works, especially those murals that composed his Boston Library project of the “Triumph of Religion.” As if he wanted to chronicle something greater than the art of painting high society ladies and gentleman, and something beaconing him beyond the humility of a piece of olive rooted turf, the Alhambra gave him pause into an ordering of sublime space and time that could render him among the greatness of the Renaissance muralists. He began to consider religious themes, and particularly the architectural renditions of the many religious phases in the history of mankind. Spain again gives Sargent poetic license to pull out the conventionally western stops and go for something on the verges of eastern mysticism.

Tarragona by Sargent

Through the procession of leaves and wild olive roots in Mallorca, or the procession of Saints and Seers in the architectural settings of a Christian Valhalla, Sargent contemplates the sublime in his later years. Perhaps Spain gave him his fill of alternatives. He had delved into the pure paint of freedom, apart from the pressures of Boston, New York, London and Paris to keep up with the nouveaux riche in all their affluent splendor. He had encountered the splendor of nature in Spain, the fervent passions of the Flamenco in El Jaleo, the architectural bliss of the Alhambra of the Islamic past of Iberia, and as well the ecstasies of pure paint from the palette of his most liberated moments.

Sargent’s legacy.

What Sargent left in the end was a legacy. A sensuous legacy that put the act of painting in the first place of any modus operandi of serious communication. Silent are we when we look at his works. Yet fired up inside does an El Jaleo have us be, thou grossly absent from this show at the National Gallery of Art, “Sargent and Spain.” Certainly Spain is a Source of the passions that flow freely in our recollections of Sargent—though an expatriate for most of his life—an American Master who far outshined the crowd. He will be remembered as a Grand Figure of Painting upon which much was built. The rambunctious break-out of the American art scene in the 1950s would not foresee his influence until now, much owed to Spain and its retroactive grip upon his remarkable contribution to modern art. A grip that forsakes all notions of respectability for the abstract passions that permeate its soil, its people, its Flamenco, and its timeless inspiration over our hearts.

Under the Olives by Sargent
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