El Jaleo

7:00 AM

John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo, 1882


El Jaleo, or the ruckus as translated in English, caught the eyes of all in attendance at the 1882 Salon. The twelve by eight foot painting dominates the Gardner Museum with its size and with its composition.

The painting was inspired by Sargent's five month trip across Spain and North Africa. The same female dancer is pictured in The Spanish Dance, another painting inspired by Singer's travels. The exact dance is called jaleo de jerez. The woman uses castanets to accompany her dance moves, which are backed up by the band pictured against the wall. 

The composition of the painting includes pops of color, drastic use of black and white, eerie shadows, and strong rhythm and movement. The woman appears to be moving forward as she steps with her right foot and stretches her arms in the typical flamenco fashion. Her elaborate costume and amazingly white skirt are also marks of typical performer's costumes. Sargent counters the bright white with dark black shadows, which allows the dancer to pop in an otherwise monochromatic setting.  The light causes a dramatic shadow to appear of the back fall, which helps create a more thrilling piece. You can feel the tension in the painting with the dark colors and stiff positioning of the dancer, but you also feel the freedom as the dancer is in mid-motion from one position to another. You also feel the movement from the dancers mimicking the star on the right fourth of the painting. While the backup dancers are dressed in bright colors, the band is in black, and they sink into the background. I believe this is because the music is so close to the dance, so they mesh together because the dancer, the band, the movement, and the music are all one. 

Sargent doesn't create a barrier that separates the viewer from the painting. When I look at El 
Jaleo, I automatically feel immersed in the scene and can here the castanets along with the guitars. I picture myself in a dive in the middle of Spain, watching women perform a customary dance on a Friday night. The walls have marks and handprints from the war and tear from all of the dancers throughout the years. The wooden floors have marks from all of the women's heels. The guitars hang on the walls, inviting anybody to pick them up and play a tune. The lights are dim and ready for the dancer to take us on a romantic journey through Spain. Not only do I feel immersed in the paining, but I feel immersed in the culture. I feel like Sargent captures the Spanish culture in one painting that leaves me breathless. In fact, as soon as I saw this painting, I knew I would pick it for a project. It appeared so free and fun, while also being dramatic and mysterious. 

While the Gilded Age occurred in America, Spanish culture was thriving, which I see in El 
Jaleo. The Gilded Age was a time where rapid industrialization and economic growth occurred in America, but on the other side of the Prime Meridian, Spain was still digging deep into their heritage. 

When reading Strapless by Deborah Davis, we learn about the work that 
goes into each portrait. Sargent works for days, weeks, and even months perfecting sketching, staging scenes, and finding the perfect lighting. For me, El Jaleo appears like it was done quickly. I don't mean the painting appears sloppy, but I think you feel in time with the music and not stuck. Paintings with extreme staging and stiff positions, like Madame X, makes you feel uncomfortable. El Jaleo make some feel loose, warm and ready to dance. It feels like Sargent walked into a bar in the middle of Spain to find the perfect scene and he paints it with the help of a few sketches from the night, but mostly from the memories he made on his trip. Not only does it feel like he paints the scene itself, but it feels like he used the dancer to embody all of his memories from the influential trip. 

Now stop staring at the screen, and start to feel the painting take over your body. 

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