Sargent and Spain

Detroit’s Van Gogh exhibit (posted about it last Thursday) was only half of the Zoom presentation I gave to my women’s club. The other recent exhibit I talked about was Sargent and Spain at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. If the Detroit exhibit brought to light a $5 million art crime, there were questions of a milder variety raised in this exhibit as well.

Sargent made numerous trips to Spain in his lifetime. In the late 1800s, Spain must have seemed otherworldly to cosmopolitans like Sargent, who had homes in London and Paris. Modernization there was slow; the country was conservative, influenced by a reactionary church, and, in many ways, it was resistant to change. Visiting there must have felt like going back in time.

Yet, Sargent loved the people—especially the Gitano (or Roma) people and their dancers. He drew artistic inspiration from country’s landscape and architecture, especially its Moorish influences. In his earliest trips, he studied the Spanish masters at the Prado in Madrid. He was especially attracted to El Greco, Goya, and the Old Master Velázquez.

If you read my thriller, Architect of Courage, you’ll probably remember that a painting by Velázquez features in it. The painting above is the one I had in mind, “Las Meninas,” painted in 1656, with the painter in the frame at left. Of course, in my book, the painting turns out to be a fake. So has this one! Scholarship now says it was painted, not by Velázquez, but by one of his students.

See the figure in the background, who seems to be just leaving the room? It gives the painting a feeling of movement, of mystery. Sargent adapted this idea in his painting “Venetian Interior.” In both paintings, the background figure forces the two-dimensional canvas into a three-dimensional space.

Sargent had a near-brush with crime, too. You may be familiar with this enormous painting of a Gitano dancer—seven 7 feet 10 inches tall and 11 feet 5 inches wide (at the top of the post). It’s at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and I guess it was just too big to steal in the notorious 1990 robbery. Despite the painting’s many details, it has a sense of the unfinished that gives a sense of being in the moment, of the movement and passion of flamenco. The National Gallery went a little high-tech and produced this video mashup of many of Sargent’s flamenco paintings. Not a complete success, but lively.

The National Gallery exhibition also included numerous examples of Sargent’s accomplished watercolors. Here is a pair of pomegranates, popular fruit of Spain that, of course, gave Granada its name. On top, a watercolor; on the bottom, the same subject in oils. Very different, both beautiful.