Legion of Honor Exhibit Explores the Spanish Influence on Sargent’s Work

By Noma Faingold

Author Richard Louis Ormond, 84, perhaps the foremost expert on American expatriate artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), was marveling at the paintings while he walked through the six galleries of the “Sargent and Spain” exhibit at the Legion of Honor, which opened on Feb. 11 and runs through May 14. 

“What does (Vincent) Van Gogh got that Sargent hasn’t got?” he asked, knowing the answer. “He’s highly experimental. These are almost abstract compositions.”

“Majorcan Fisherman” by artist John Singer Sargent is on display at the Legion of Honor through May 14 as part of the “Sargent and Spain” exhibit. Photo by Julia Featheringill Photography. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

London-based Ormond, who was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for his cultural contributions as the former deputy director of the National Portrait Gallery and the director of the National Maritime Museum, as well as his many published works on Sargent and other artists, is pleased with the way the exhibition is laid out. As one of the curators of Sargent and Spain, he was invited to the opening. 

Emma Acker (left), associate curator of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and author Richard Louis Ormond, preeminent expert on John Singer Sargent, discuss various aspects of the artist’s work at a recent pre-opening event at the Legion of Honor. Photo by Noma Faingold.

“I like the spaciousness, in that each picture is given its room,” he said. “It’s also telling a story about the phases in Sargent’s career. I think people like that.”

The exhibit, which was first staged last fall at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., unfolds thematically in six sections, focusing on Sargent’s seven visits to Spain, from 1879 to 1912. He spent significant time in 26 cities and towns, including Madrid, Seville and the island of Majorca. At the entrance to “Sargent and Spain,” there is a large map on the wall, which traces his travels. 

“One of the thrills of this exhibition is it gives us the vicarious pleasure of travel,” said Emma Acker, associate curator of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “In a sense, we can visit these destinations through the artworks on view and really see Spain through Sargent’s eyes.”

The West Coast exclusive exhibition features a wide range of Sargent’s oils, watercolors and pencil studies, as well as never-before-seen photographs from his personal collection. Even though he lived in Europe his whole life (residing in Paris and London), he influenced a generation of American artists.

One gallery is devoted to how such Spanish masters as Diego Velázquez, El Greco and Francisco Goya influenced his work. Sargent studied the expressive brushwork and high-contrast realism used by his hero, Velázquez. From 1879 to 1895, Sargent was registered as a copyist. 

In the next chapter of his career, Sargent became one of the most sought-after society portraitists of his era in both Europe and America. 

“His works seem to epitomize the glamour and elegance, but also some of the excesses of the so-called Gilded Age,” said Acker.

Creatively, Sargent, who was born in Florence, Italy to American parents, was not satisfied with his commercial success as a portrait artist. He was looking for more substance and found it in Spain, in its landscapes, architecture, people, culture and spiritual traditions.

“White Ships” by John Singer Sargent. Photo by the  Brooklyn Museum, courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Galleries titled, “Dance and Music,” “The Land and Its People,” “Majorca” and “Religion and Spirituality” in the exhibition cover scenes that most captivated the artist.

Sargent was enamored with flamenco music and was inspired by an internationally celebrated dancer, Carmen Daucet Moreno (known as La Carmencita). Two notable paintings of her are on display, one of her in mid-performance with her arm dramatically outstretched and the other a large-scale, glamorous portrait of her in a gold-colored embroidered gown, looking like a diva of her era. 

“Sargent just skims that embroidery at the bottom,” said Ormond, referring to the light touch of the brushstrokes. “It’s one ravishing piece.”

Ormond’s favorite section of “Sargent and Spain” is the Majorca gallery. During this period, the artist was immersed in depicting everyday life and everyday people. 

“Those are very earthy, powerful pictures,” he said. 

In particular, Ormond seemed endlessly fascinated by the complex, yet soothing painting, Majorcan Fisherman (1908), which is composed of a young fisherman off to the left side under a thatched roof, fishing gear draped over a flimsy wood railing, with the rich blue Mediterranean in the background. There’s plenty of shadow mixed with sun-soaked light in the piece.

“As you look at it, you aren’t sure where you are. You are completely ungrounded,” Ormond said. “It’s like a mosaic, like a tapestry. It’s all about the paint, pattern and rhythm. When you come up close, it all seems to be messy. When you step back, it all falls into place. How did he know it was all going to work? It was just instinctual. He was so bold. He was always testing himself. He didn’t waste anything.”

Ormond continued to talk about the painting as if he were still discovering new things about it, even though he’s been writing about Sargent for decades. 

“Look at the fisherman’s shirt and all the different tones. There’s so much there,” he said. 

“Sargent and Spain” runs through May 14 at the Legion of Honor. March 20, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., will be Sargent and Spain Access Day. For more information and sign-up form:

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