John Singer Sargent made his first trip to Spain in 1879. He was 23 and had just completed his artistic training in Paris. His teacher, Carolus-Duran, had urged his charges to study “Velázquez, Velázquez, Velázquez, ceaselessly study Velázquez.” That advice, inevitably, entailed a visit to the Prado in Madrid.
Without Spain, in other words — and without its great artists, El Greco (born in Crete but forever associated with Toledo), Velázquez, Murillo, Ribera, Zurbarán and Goya — French Romanticism and Realism are all but unthinkable. So it’s hardly surprising that Sargent, having completed his apprenticeship in Paris, decided it was high time he, too, went to Spain.
More surprising is that he returned — first in 1892, then in 1895, 1903, 1908 (twice) and 1912. Even Manet only went once (and he returned early, underwhelmed, he said, by Spain’s cuisine).
Sargent’s travels in Spain are the subject of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. The show, though somewhat dowdily presented, is a delight; the catalogue is full of new research (including previously unseen photographs taken by the artist), and you will see Sargent — a glorious painter — at his best.
What you won’t see, unfortunately, are “El Jaleo,” and “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” the two large-scale masterpieces Sargent painted in full Hispanophile mode. The first, a dusky rendering of Spanish flamenco, is permanently installed in a Spanish-style cloister at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; the second, Sargent’s richly complicated homage to Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” (The Maids of Honor), is also in Boston, at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Happily, compensations abound. The show kicks off with some of the young Sargent’s lively copies of works by El Greco, Velázquez and Goya. They’re sprinkled among actual paintings by Spanish masters from the NGA’s collection, among them Velázquez’s “The Needlewoman,” Goya’s “Señora Sabasa Garcia” and a version of El Greco’s “Saint Martin and the Beggar” (a separate copy of which Sargent kept in his London studio).
In Spain, freed from the tiresome (but lucrative) obligation to make the great, the good and the heavily insured more attractive than they were, Sargent was able to express his curiosity and indulge his infatuations. He usually went and returned by steamship through Gibraltar. He traveled most often to Madrid and Barcelona, but he also went to Granada, Ronda, Toledo and the island of Majorca, as well as an array of less famous towns in northern Spain (along the old Santiago pilgrimage route), around Madrid and in Catalonia and Andalusia.
Sargent was not an Impressionist, if by that term we mean a painter who represented the world using discreet units of color, all of similar size and weight. He was a tonalist. That’s to say, he used paint to reproduce the way the eye reads volume and space by registering subtle shifts in light and shade. Combining tonalism, which he learned from Velázquez, with vivid, lifelike color, he employed a dazzling variety of fast and loose-looking brushstrokes to convey not only the contingency of light but the speed and richness of our embodied visual perceptions. “Embodied” is key: In Sargent’s best paintings, touch is everything.
Consider “The Spanish Dance.” This was not a painting made on the spot. Sargent worked on it over several years after returning from his first trip to Spain. It shows pairs of dancers performing outdoors at night, their movements illuminated by stars or perhaps fireworks (shades of Whistler). The dim light catches the dancers’ white dresses. More dramatically, it illuminates the closest woman’s bare arms and her thrown back neck.
Sargent doesn’t need to outline her chin or fingers. He simply uses smudges of darker paint to set off the illuminated parts, which is both an efficient way to suggest volume and more true to visual experience than laborious outlines. That most of the painting is inchoate and hard to read adds to the sensation of physicality — the sense we have of sharing the picture’s space in that same twinkling light, where things dynamically morph in and out of visibility and the mind must infer what it can’t see.
Although it was painted in Venice, not Spain, the curators have also included Sargent’s “Venetian Interior” (c. 1880-1882) because it demonstrates what the young painter had learned from Velázquez after his first trip to the Prado. It shows a dim hallway illuminated by bright light coming through an open door at its far end. On the hallway’s right-hand wall, Sargent captures light reflecting off picture and door frames with single brushstrokes so devastatingly deft, the sensation is like news of a windfall whispered in your ear.
The light in Spain is notoriously bright, and Sargent’s daytime pictures are as arresting as his dark interiors and night pictures. A favorite picture of mine, rarely seen outside of its home at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, shows a hospital at Granada. Sargent may have visited it because a travel guidebook deemed its Renaissance architecture worth a detour. But the picture is no mere memento. It sweats in the Spanish heat, throbs with tedium, mutters with the low-level suffering of long-term inpatients. Sargent shows us a cloistered, receding space (not unlike “Venetian Interior”) with, foreshortened in the foreground, a patient on a stretcher. A supporting cast, each captured in his own capsule of melancholy, takes the sun by the balcony railing. The miracle of the painting is in the way Sargent transposes “there and then” into “here and now.” He does it through touch.
Sargent’s oil paintings and his marvelous watercolors (which are scattered throughout the show) dramatize the differences between tonal painting and photography. Photographs serve up traces of light, fixed by chemicals. They are, in a sense, touchless. Paint is moved about with a brush held in a hand, connected to an arm, directed by a brain. Oil paint, in particular, sits up on the surface. It has textures, miniature peaks and troughs, variations in direction, thickness and speed of application. It is a substance which, for all these reasons, ignites a sense of immediacy. You cannot guess at the force of that immediacy from looking at the pictures accompanying this article, which are themselves photographs. You have to see the paintings with your own eyes.
Prepare to be flabbergasted.
The show also includes landscapes, portraits and lovely scenes of family life caught on the fly. “Mosquito Nets,” for instance, from the Detroit Institute of Arts, shows Sargent’s sister, Emily, and their friend Eliza Wedgwood reading in a room in a villa they had rented in the mountain village of Valldemossa. Their heads are protected by framed nets resembling domed hair dryers in a salon. It’s such a lovely intimate scene, and as with so many Sargent works, you become aware as you watch that it’s something you haven’t previously seen in a museum.
His depictions, from his final trip to Spain in 1912, of Roma dwellings, olive groves, fishermen on Majorca and farm courtyards, are bravura displays. In all these pictures, the complexity of the light, often dappled by grape vines, thatched roofs or olive tree leaves, allows Sargent a freedom he didn’t permit himself in his finely observed portraits and fastidious architectural studies. To see how he captures the broken, scudding quality of light on rough painted walls or used dry brushes, flicks, smudges and twists of the wrist to depict sloping, dappled hillsides is to feel oneself in the presence not just of mastery but of freedom. Sargent felt free in Spain, perhaps in more senses than one. He expressed that freedom with the traveler’s willingness to glance, capture and move on. Nothing in his best pictures feels belabored.
Sargent, who is the subject of a new biography — “The Grand Affair” — by Paul Fisher, was to painting as Roger Federer is to tennis. A maestro. It’s fair to say that he was not, generally speaking, a profound artist; he was too bewitched by the surface of things. (“The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” which radiates uncanny insight, is a rare exception.) But very few people have had more command over the process of moving paint around until it resembles the look and feel of things. In any case, isn’t there a sense in which virtuosity, combined with nonchalance, is its own form of profundity?
Sargent and Spain is at the National Gallery of Art through Jan. 2. nga.gov.