‘Sargent and Spain’ Is Full of Hits, But Still Holds Surprises

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

Dark red walls hung with three oil paintings of dancers
Installation view of 'Sargent and Spain' at the Legion of Honor with 'La Carmencita' at center. (Photo by Gary Sexton; Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Look, the Legion of Honor doesn’t need any help from me to publicize Sargent and Spain, its exhibition of paintings, watercolors and sketchbooks made by the American expat John Singer Sargent during and after his many visits to Spain. But there were so many surprises and discoveries within the show that I feel compelled to voice my enthusiasm.

Sargent, best known for his regal and luminous oil portraits of 19th- and early 20th-century high society, first journeyed to Spain as an adult in 1879 to learn from his artistic forebears, studying and copying works by El Greco, Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya.

In total, he would make seven trips there over the course of three decades, traveling further into the Spanish countryside and coastal communities, beyond the urban centers frequented by fellow tourists. As he traveled, he took and purchased photographs, sketching architecture and gardens that would continue to influence his work long after he left.

Sargent’s renderings of empty courtyards and dense vegetation show the precision of someone dedicated to conveying a sense of light and space. His paintings of Mallorca, in particular, depict the blinding light of a Mediterranean island and the cool blue shadows cast by the rigging of boats. It’s clear the intricate beauty of places like the Alhambra fascinated him, but he was also acutely aware of — and interested in — daily contemporary life.

Watercolor with blue and green hues of ships, sails and rigging
John Singer Sargent, 'White Ships,' 1908; Watercolor over graphite, with gouache and wax resist, on paper, 13 7/8 × 19 3/8 in. (Photo by Brooklyn Museum; Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

A perfect example of this duality comes from the enigmatic painting Turkey in a Courtyard (c. 1879–80), in which a carved wooden balcony and an arched doorway fade into a brushily rendered turkey wedged (in a strange compositional move) into the lower right corner of the canvas.


Of course, Sargent captured more than animals, landscapes and buidings. He painted the Spanish and Roma people with a respect not often bestowed to those communities at the time. His interest in flamenco — a traditional Roma dance — manifests in some of the show’s most dramatic and thrilling paintings. The exhibition’s centerpiece is La Carmencita (1890), a 7.5-foot-tall portrait of the dancer Carmen Dauset Moreno standing proudly, arms akimbo, in an ornate yellow dress.

It’s a magnificent piece of art, as are all of Sargent’s sketches and paintings inspired by Spanish dance (including numerous sketches for El Jaleo, not on view here). But I would like to propose an alternate, shall we say, “sleeper” hit.

Painting of two white women under black netting reading books on red couch
John Singer Sargent, 'Mosquito Nets,' 1908; Oil on canvas, 22 1/2 × 28 1/4 in. (Image from The Detroit Institute of Arts; Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

May I present Mosquito Nets (1908). It’s a painting of Sargent’s sister Emily (an artist in her own right) and her friend Eliza Wedgwood reclining under homemade mosquito-net headdresses. They are reading contentedly. Where La Carmencita is resolutely upright, these ladies are nearly horizontal, wrapped in black clothing and shrouded by their nets. As Sargent and Spain proves throughout its galleries, travel can yield astonishing views, glimpses of history and appreciations of different cultures. It can also, simply, look like a delicious bit of relaxation.

‘Sargent and Spain’ is on view at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor through May 14, 2023. Details here.