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John Singer Sargent, Spanish Roma Dwelling, 1912, oil on canvas, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, Gift of anonymous donor, 1931.13. Bridgeman Images
John Singer Sargent, 'Spanish Roma Dwelling,' 1912, oil on canvas, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, Gift of anonymous donor, 1931.13. Photo: Bridgeman Images

Sargent's fascination with Spain

The National Art Gallery of Washington opened an exhibition with works John Singer Sargent painted during his frequent trips to Spain

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John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was one of the most prestigious society portraitists of his generation, although he had a hidden passion: the culture and landscapes of Spain, a country to which he traveled frequently, especially to Mallorca, the island he was in love with. 

With the aim of recalling Sargent's Spanish side, the National Art Gallery of Washington has brought together around 120 works for the first time, including oils, watercolors and drawings, mostly landscapes and marine scenes, paintings of everyday life and architectural studies, and sympathetic portraits of the locals he met along the way during his trips to Spain. The exhibition, entitled Sargent in Spain, which will be on display through Jan. 2, also includes 28 previously unreleased photographs from these trips, some of them taken by the artist himself.

Of American parents, Sargent was born in Florence and trained in Paris, in the workshop of the painter Carolus-Duran, one of the most prominent society portraitists in France at the time.

It was Carolus-Duran who awakened in the young American painter a fascination for Spain, infecting him not only with his admiration for Velázquez and Spanish painting in general, but also with his love of Spanish folk life and music.

In 1879, at 23, Sargent left Paris for Spain, the first of seven long journeys he would make until 1912, and heeding his former teacher, he went to the Prado Museum to soak up Velázquez. He stayed there for a whole month, and his study of Las Meninas led him to create his famous Venetian Interior (c. 1880-82), exhibited in one of the rooms of the National Art Gallery.

"In Madrid he learned to interpret the placement of the figure in the shallow space, the simplicity of the silhouette against the neutral background and the restrained palette. In addition to the paintings and prints of Velázquez and other earlier artists, Sargent was drawn to the works of several Spanish contemporaries that also influenced his artistic style, particularly the works of Joaquín Sorolla and the somewhat older Mariano Fortuny Marsal," said the exhibition curators. 

If the first section of the exhibition is dedicated to his time at the Prado Museum, the second section reveals Sargent's interest in depicting the performing arts that he loved so much about Spain. Between 1879 and 1881, and again around 1890, Sargent produced an extraordinary series of images of Spanish dancers and musicians, inspired by the traditions of Andalusia. 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), and images of the celebrated performer Carmen Dauset Moreno, known as La Carmencita.

In his travels through Spain, Sargent studied and portrayed subjects from northern regions (Santiago de Compostela and Camprodón) to the south (Granada), including the island of Mallorca, which fascinated him. He was captivated by both rural and urban places, exploring the countryside, the coasts, the architecture, the gardens and the inhabitants he met. Over the course of three decades, he created a broad portrait of the Spanish landscape: its flora and fauna, its people and animals, its ports and ships. These works capture the intrinsic character of the country and its spirit of place, as well as the distinctive qualities of its light and atmosphere.

All of these works are spread across the next three sections of the exhibition, which include paintings of prominent architectural elements of the royal palaces, particularly the Alhambra and Generalife, and their surroundings — the elegant arches, colonnades and courtyards he encountered in the cities he visited, and the lush fruit and foliage of Mallorca (which he would soon adapt 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 interplay between exterior and interior space, ornament and pattern, and the dramatic, shifting play of light, shadow, 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 spaces and architectural designs-as well as objects he collected and depicted. Among the works on view are studies of towering cathedrals, the Crucifixion and the Virgin that he made in preparation for the mural cycle. The final gallery of the exhibition features photographic murals, a reading area, and an interactive kiosk where visitors can peruse one of Sargent's scrapbooks.

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