John Singer Sargent’s EL JALEO

John Singer Sargent’s EL JALEO
At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix circa 1991)

Six men dressed in black lean against a dark grey wall, hunched over their guitars, and watch a woman dance. In a dark, smoky room, the solitary dancer raises up one arm in a tense, ecstatic movement of inspiration; her other hand clutches the skirt of her dress — a flash of white light gleaming in the dark. You can almost hear the rhythmic weeping of the guitars; you can almost feel beating of the dancer’s tumultuous heart.

El Jaleo is one of the most famous paintings in Boston, but until recently, a century’s worth of candlewax, smoke, mold, varnish, dust, dirt, and brine have dulled and darkened its surface. Newly cleaned, the painting now looks the way it looked when John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) first exhibited it at the Paris Salon of 1882:  dazzling.

Sargent painted El Jaleo when he was in his early 20’s, following a visit to Spain where he immersed himself in Spanish art and culture, especially the paintings of Goya and Velasquez. The cleaning has revealed the painting’s gestural brushwork and brilliant color — Velasquez’s palette of black, grey, white, and deep, rich hues of purple and red. Restored, El Jaleo looks deeper and more voluptuous, but at the same time more aggressively modern.

“I was amazed by how perfect it was,” exclaimed Alain Goldrach, the independent conservator who spent six months cleaning the painting at the Museum of Fine Arts’ Conservation Lab. “You can now see the guitars on the wall, the Prussian blue of the dancer’s shawl, the inscriptions and the handprints on the walls. And those violet purple glazes — they were an experimental modern color only on the market in Paris for a few years. The painting has gained extraordinarily in color and depth.”

El Jaleo is an Andalusian dance of courtship, which builds slowly and moves to a climax; the audience encourages the dancer by clapping or singing. The name of the dance is related to a word which means to pull, and Sargent’s painting reveals the pull that is at the heart of the dance, like the pull of the ocean or the pull of the moon.

Sargent painted El Jaleo a few years before he met Isabella Stewart GardnerHenry James introduced them to each other in London in 1886 — but she instantly recognized the painting as an emblem of her own superb vitality. Isabella had to wait more than 30 years to bring the painting into her home; but in the meantime, she and Sargent became great friends and corresponded extensively, often writing to each other about their mutual love of Spain. (The museum’s archives includes almost 200 letters from Sargent.)

When El Jaleo finally came to her in 1914, as a gift from one of her husband’s cousins, Isabella redesigned her museum around it, tearing up her music room to build the Spanish Cloister, where it now hangs, enshrined within a Gothic arch and surrounded by mirrors and a vast golden frame. The Spanish Cloister looks like a chapel, but what’s being worshipped here is the passion of art.

“You arrive at that painting the way you arrive at the museum — you enter this dark space, and it’s like going into a cave or a nightclub, and then there’s the perfume of the flowers and the gorgeous pink light, and it’s all so voluptuous, with the sexiest flowers in the world and the pictures that were at the time the sexiest pictures in the world,” commented Trevor Fairbrother, the Boston MFA’s Curator of Contemporary Art who is also a Sargent scholar.

“It’s about dance and music and physical abandon. And for someone like Sargent, who came from a fairly uptight, Anglo-American perspective, it’s about the coming together of different kinds of passion — his love of music and sensual spectacle, which has taken him to Spain, to its true source, to the edge where it’s most abandoned and most pure and most magnificent.”

“Sargent was absolutely the realist. That place and those gaslights and those garish hot orange colors are of-the-moment. They’re 19th century colors. There’s a streak of almost bad taste in Sargent, which I enjoy. He was out to make his mark with this incredible gusto — but then the grandeur comes through, and finally there’s this incredibly grand moment of this absolutely splendid woman, the absolute center of attention, at the center of her dance, and everyone is there for her — the spotlights and the musicians — and everyone is pulling together for this moment.”

El Jaleo is the first painting you see when you enter the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and it remains an emblem for Isabella’s great creation. Because the Gardner Museum isn’t just a collection of things to look at — it’s an environment to experience, an unbelievably rich and evocative assemblage of works of art and objects, chosen and installed with an artist’s eye. Isabella Stewart Gardner was an artist and her museum is a work of art — one of the greatest works of installation art of all time. That’s why the things she chose and put in place must stay where they are, and not be scattered or re-arranged — any more than you can rearrange the elements of a great painting by Picasso or Chardin.

To celebrate its restoration, El Jaleo will travel to the National Gallery in 1992, together with other Sargent paintings and drawings for an exhibition called John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo. But when the painting comes home, I hope it stays here, at the heart of the Gardner Museum. Because if you really look — if you really allow yourself to experience it — the picture and the place and the music and the flowers all come together and you, too, can feel the pull and the passion of art. And then, as William Butler Yeats wrote in Among School Children,

“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

by Rebecca Nemser for

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