Spain Through the Eyes of Sargent

John Singer Sargent, “Driving in Spain,” c. 1903, watercolor over graphite on paper, framed: 50.8 x 64.14 cm (20 x 25 1/4 in.), image: 34.93 x 48.26 cm (13 3/4 x 19 in.), private collection

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) had a decades-long fascination with Spain. The result of which is a remarkable body of work — over 225 oils, watercolors, and drawings, supplemented by sketchbooks, scrapbooks, and nearly 200 photographs that he collected or possibly took himself — depicting the rich and diverse culture he encountered.

John Singer Sargent, “Study for Spanish Dancer,” c. 1880–1881, watercolor over graphite on paper, image: 30.16 x 20 cm (11 7/8 x 7 7/8 in.), framed: 52.07 x 41.28 x 4.13 cm (20 1/2 x 16 1/4 x 1 5/8 in.), Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, gift of Margaret J. and George V. Charlton in memory of Eugene McDermott, Image courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

Over seven extended visits between 1879 and 1912, the artist made a rich visual record of his time, including stunning landscape views, detailed architectural studies, local peoples and traditions, dynamic scenes of flamenco dance, and everyday moments of Spanish Roma life. He copied paintings, especially by Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), in museums and was intrigued by art in churches, which influenced his expansive murals for the Boston Public Library.

John Singer Sargent, “Pool in the Garden of La Granja,” c. 1903, watercolor over graphite on paper, framed: 49 x 64 cm (19 5/16 x 25 3/16 in.), image: 30.16 x 46 cm (11 7/8 x 18 1/8 in.), private collection

On view now at the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), “Sargent and Spain” offers the first chance to see 140 of the artist’s oils, watercolors, drawings, and never-before published photographs in one place. 

John Singer Sargent, “Camprodón,” c. 1892, watercolor over graphite, with gouache, on paper, sheet: 46.7 x 31.2 cm (18 3/8 x 12 5/16 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection

Arranged in six sections, the exhibition traces Sargent’s  varied approaches to depicting Spain, from studying the work of Spanish masters to depicting the performing arts, landscapes from various regions of the country, and an exploration of religious imagery.


The first section examines the young artist’s immersion in Spanish art — especially by Velázquez — at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, where he learned to interpret the placement of the figure in shallow space, the simplicity of the silhouette against the neutral background, and the restrained palette. In addition to paintings and prints by Velázquez and other earlier artists, Sargent was drawn to works by several Spanish contemporaries who also influenced his artistic style, particularly works by Joaquín Sorolla and the slightly older Mariano Fortuny Marsal.

The second section reveals Sargent’s interest in depicting the performing arts he enjoyed in Spain. From 1879 to 1881 and again around 1890, this artist-connoisseur produced an extraordinary series of images of Spanish dancers and musicians, particularly those inspired by the traditions of Andalusia (southern Spain). Among the works on view are the paintings “The Spanish Dance” (c. 1879–1882) and “Spanish Roma Dancer” (two versions, both dated c. 1879–1880), the watercolor “Spanish Dancer” (c. 1880–1881), sketches and drawings related to El Jaleo (1882) and “Spanish Dancer” (c. 1880–1881), as well as images (1890) of the celebrated performer Carmen Dauset Moreno, known as La Carmencita.

As Sargent traveled throughout Spain, he studied and depicted subjects from north (Santiago de Compostela and Camprodón) to south (Granada), and out to the island of Majorca, which fascinated him. He was captivated by both rural and urban locales, exploring the countryside, coasts, architecture, gardens, and the inhabitants he met. Along the way, over the course of three decades, he created a comprehensive portrayal of the Spanish landscape—its flora and fauna; its people and their animals; its ports and ships. These works capture the country’s intrinsic character and spirit of place, as well as the distinctive qualities of its light and atmosphere.

These works are featured in the next three sections of the exhibition, which includes highlights such as architectural elements in royal palaces, notably the Alhambra and Generalife, and their surroundings; the graceful arches, colonnades, and courtyards he found in the cities he visited; as well as the lush fruits and foliage of Majorca (he would soon adapt the latter for the Triumph of Religion murals at the Boston Public Library). His depictions, in both oil and watercolor, focus on the clarity of line; the interrelationship between exterior and interior space, ornament and pattern; and the dramatic and shifting play of light, shade, and watery reflection.

The exhibition concludes with an exploration of the religious imagery that occupied Sargent, especially in relation to his commission to paint the Triumph of Religion murals at the Boston Public Library. His engagement with Spanish Catholicism includes lively oil sketches—recording architectural spaces and designs—as well as objects he collected and represented. Among the works on view are studies of soaring cathedrals, the Crucifixion, and the Madonna that he made in preparation for the mural cycle. The final gallery in the exhibition offers photo murals, a reading area, and an interactive kiosk where visitors can examine one of Sargent’s scrapbooks.

Exhibition Tour
• National Gallery of Art, Washington, October 2, 2022–January 2, 2023
• Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Legion of Honor, February 11–May 14, 2023


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