Evidently, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), the American expatriate and demigod of paint, had a kind of love affair with Spain. From 1879 to 1912 — nearly the entire span of his professional life — he visited the country seven times, enamored with its dance and music, its architecture, its people and landscapes, its mystery, tradition and spirit. (There was also Velasquez, Goya and El Greco.)
At the National Gallery of Art, “Sargent and Spain” is the first exhibition to reveal the artist’s affinity for Spain and the approach he adopted in depicting the rich life and landscape he encountered there. The country inspired Sargent’s art from the beginning through the end of his career, reminding us of the powerful and lingering influence of travel—a lovely little coda to the (relative) end of a global pandemic defined at its edges by burnout and cabin fever. The exhibition is, of course, much more than that sentiment, but it’s impossible to ignore the familiar shiver of wanderlust as you walk through these galleries. It emanates from Sargent’s paintings — the salty, arid whisper of seawater and olive groves, the sultry darkness of a dance hall, the burble of an old stone fountain, the bleached heat of a rocky beachside. It’s really lovely.
Sargent is best known as one of the most prominent painters of the Gilded Age, frequently lauded as the leading portrait painter of his generation for his evocations of Edwardian-era luxury. Nearly every scrap of paper he touched suggests the man was graced with a kind of divine virtuosity. Pure instinct, precise observation and withering intellect working together at all times to produce masterful, expressive and immersive paintings that feel somehow as if they were painted effortlessly and in a single instant with just a few swipes of a brush. He frequently captured the soul of a person, object, or even an entire architectural heritage, with no more than a handful of perfectly placed marks.
At the core of that is observation. Sargent was very good at looking — at seeing — which makes him the perfect kind of artist to interpret the visual language of a new environment. This is profoundly evident in the first gallery of this exhibition, which displays astonishing copies he made of Velasquez paintings at the Prado in Madrid while on his first trip to Spain when he was still a student.
Throughout the exhibition, there are revealing glimpses of Sargent’s working methods, as well as in-depth studies of particular sites he explored through his work — most notably, the Alhambra.
A Spanish fountain, a garden vase, studies of windows in Majorca and the Renaissance architecture of the island’s capital, Palma. They’re almost too perfectly rendered. No painter should be able to articulate the play of light and shadow when sunlight reflects from a stone fountain’s water basin back onto itself — let alone do it in watercolor, the most unforgiving medium in the history of art.
Sargent seemed to prefer depicting small sections of buildings rather than showing entire structures. He painted architecture the way he encountered it — a distant doorway through a courtyard, the arc of a loggia that opens into a garden.
A major revelation produced by this exhibition, however, is that Sargent also painted architecture the way one sees it through the lens of a camera. Newly discovered photographs belonging to Sargent — some commercial but others that he may have actually taken himself — depict the same architectural subjects as his paintings. It is unmistakable once you see it that Sargent often painted “snapshot” views of architecture—less panoramic, more fragmented, close up and at unusual angles. In certain instances, it even looks like he may have used these photographs for occasional reference.
All this offers a beguiling deep dive into Sargent’s work on architectural themes, and the newly discovered photography opens a fascinating window into the early but immediate, tectonic influences of the camera on fine art.
But the sensory experience of Spain is the true focus—and joy—of this exhibition. And perhaps no artist captured it as deftly as Sargent. To see his work is to be transported.
“Sargent and Spain,” is now at the National Gallery of Art, through Jan. 2, 2023.