Boston's love affair with John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) stems in part from one of Sargent's most famous paintings, El Jaleo, housed in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of Boston.
Sargent was born in Florence, Italy, and received little traditional schooling. After his artistic skills became apparent, John Singer Sargent joined the atelier, or teaching studio, of Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran
John Singer Sargent. El Jaleo, 1882. Oil on canvas, 7' 7" by 11' 5". Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.
(1837–1917). Although little known presently, Carolus-Duran was one of the most highly regarded portrait painters and teachers in the latter half of the 19th century. The fame of his atelier, where he trained 81 American painters as well as European ones, owed its fame to Carolus-Duran's unorthodox teaching methodology:
he encouraged students to paint immediately without making preliminary drawings, defying academic traditionalists; and
he required students to familiarize themselves with the famous paintings and painterly traditions of Venetian and Spanish artwork, especially Diego Velazquez paintings.
Sargent travelled to Spain in 1879, just four years after Paris was scandalized by Bizet's opera, Carmen. In it, the sensous, exotic Gypsy, Carmen, seduces a young soldier, Don Jose, but then falls in love with a toreador instead; mad with jealously and rage, Don Jose murders Carmen.
This depiction of lower class life and the death of the opera's
John Singer Sargent. Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, 1888. Oil on canvas, 6' 3" by 2' 7". Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.
protagonist were new, controversial and memorable themes. The "loose morals" of Carmen reinforced public sentiment about Gypsies, who were widely shunned in the 19th century.
Like many artists, Sargent admired the spontaneity and freedom of nomadic Gypsies, despite the public perception that they were amoral. Think Carmen and the two-timing woman. Nonetheless, Sargent wanted to memorialize his fondness for Gypsy music and dance, and began work on an enormous canvas.
El Jaleo was born.
Sargent named the painting after a dance called jaleo de jerez, well aware that jaleo also meant "hubbub" or "to-do". When it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1882 with the title Sargent El Jaleo: Danse des gitanes (or Dance of the Gypies), it was purchased by the Bostonian T. Jefferson Coolidge.
Six years later in 1888, El Jaleo was exhibited alongside Sargent's newly finished Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner (left). When we look at this portrait, Mrs. Gardner seems starched, and nearly haloed by the wallpaper. Sargent's brushwork is tight and controlled, lacking spontaneity (Isabella Stewart Gardner reported he repainted her face 8 times).
John Singer Sargent. Madame X. Oil on canvas, 1883-84. 82 1/8" x 43 1/4". Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1916 (16.53). Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Madame X (right). This portrait scandalized the Paris Salon and the family of Madame X, prompting Sargent's sudden departure from Paris.
Remarkably, Isabella Stewart Gardner, a wildly independent woman, ceded to her husband's wish - Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner was never publicly exhibited again during Mr. Gardner's lifetime.
But the pairing of the two Sargent paintings led Isabella Gardner to ask T. Jefferson Coolidge to bequeath El Jaleo to her. In 1914 she expanded her collection of Spanish art into several new rooms, and built a Spanish cloister, complete with Moorish arch, in which to display El Jaleo. According to the Gardner museum, Coolidge was so impressed with the installation that he donated El Jaleo to the museum immediately.
El Jaleo is a beguiling work, exploding with energy, sensuality and drama. In the dim light, the gypsy commands the painting, her blindingly white dress crackling with energy as her feet stomp and carve the beat. The musicians are frenetically playing while other Gypsies pound the beat behind the center dancer.
How odd that Jack Gardner wasn't offended by El Jaleo - given the public opinion of Gypsies and the inarguable
Detail. El Jaleo.
endorsement of them by John Singer Sargent - but was horrified by the exposed flesh in Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Yet another reminder that one needs to understand the social context in which famous paintings were made!