Study for "The Spanish Dancer"


John Singer Sargent ( American, 1856 - 1925 )

c. 1880 – 1881
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General Description

In 1879 John Singer Sargent, an American expatriate living in France, spent five months touring Spain and North Africa. At the time, fascination with the unknown aspects of Spanish and Moorish culture permeated Europe, inspiring literary works like Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra (1832, 1851) and George Bizet's opera Carmen (1875). Sargent returned to Paris with sketches of Spanish flamenco dancers and the germ of an idea for his first full-scale salon painting, El Jaleo (1882, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum). El Jaleo, which translates from Spanish to mean "ruckus" or "uproar," depicts a dimly lit hall in which a lone performer pounds out her dance to the accompaniment of guitars and shouts.

Sargent's composition for the monumental painting developed over three years through a series of drawings and watercolors. His principal effort went into the figure of the dancer, especially her gesture and dress. When it entered the Dallas Museum of Fine Art's collection, the Study for the "Spanish Dancer" appeared to be the final preliminary work for El Jaleo. The rediscovery of a full-size oil painting of this dancer, Sargent's first attempt to paint this subject, revised this association. It is the previously unknown work, titled Spanish Dancer (1880-1881, private collection), rather than for El Jaleo, that the Museum's watercolor relates to most directly, as the attitude and dress of the figure confirms.

Visual analysis of both the Study and the completed Spanish Dancer clarify Sargent's working method. Sargent's use of watercolor for a penultimate study is unusual. Sketching the basic forms in pencil, he deftly applied watercolor washes to give substance to the dancer's body and shawl, and to suggest the murky background. The dancer's skirts remain sketchily handled in this work; Sargent altered them once more in the Spanish Dancer. Sargent signed the watercolor, indicating his pleasure with its resolution, and its completion as a separate work of art in his mind.

Adapted from

Eleanor Jones Harvey, DMA electronic record (1974.1.FA), n.d.

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