JOHN SINGER SARGENT'S thrilling "El Jaleo," now on loan to the National Gallery, is really about how some creative artists are seized with a vision or an obsession that will not leave them until the image is realized: as close to perfection as possible.
Think of Monet's series paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, or water lilies, or haystacks, or the gardens at Giverny; or think of Andrew Wyeth's fixation with his German model Helga.
In the non-painting world, there are novelists, poets, and composers who have been inspired by one memory or imagined scene to create a work. Larry McMurtry once said a final scene flashed into his consciousness before he wrote "Horseman, Pass By" and the novel unfolded out of it. William Styron told an audience that he woke up one Sunday morning and saw an image of the concentration camp survivor who had lived in his boarding house. So real, so clear was she that he sat down to begin a novel about her, which emerged several years later as "Sophie's Choice."
American painter John Singer Sargent had an image of a Spanish flamenco dancer lodged somewhere in his memory or imagination as a young man - perhaps going as far back as his first visit to Spain at 12 with his expatriate American parents. This show contains nearly 50 Sargent works of art on this one theme - seven oil paintings related to "El Jaleo," 40 drawings and watercolors, and the painting itself.
This is the first time the legendary painting has been on loan since 1914, from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
The painting has been recently restored by expert Alain Goldrach to its dramatic, flashing contrast of colors and lyric brushwork. Faces that were hidden in the murky, uncleaned painting are now visible; colors sing, and even the little orange placed on a ladder-back chair at left can be seen. The contrast before and after cleaning is so sharp this might even be a sister painting to the original. There was, however, a romantic atmosphere of mystery in the unrestored painting that was wiped away along wit h the grime of half a century.
The director of the Gardner Museum, Anne Hawley, says "El Jaleo" came to the Gardner in an unusual way. "It was not acquired through the advice of a [Bernard] Berenson or through Mrs. Gardner purchasing at auction. She fell in love with it. It was owned by Bostonian Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, who had purchased it shortly after it was painted.
"And she wanted it very much, so she created a very crafty strategy in that she offered to take the picture while he had his house closed for the summer and was away, and she installed it in what we call the Spanish Cloister at the museum - which she really built for this picture. And as you step into this Spanish Cloister you feel that you are drawn in into the drama of the picture.... When [her relative] Thomas Jefferson Coolidge came back from vacation, she was not about to part with it, and so we say
he gave it to her...."
When "El Jaleo" returns to Boston after leaving the National Gallery Aug. 2, portions of the Washington show will be displayed with it.
Nicholai Cikovsky, curator of the show, quipped, "And we promise to give it back." Mr. Cikovsky, the gallery's curator of American and British painting, pointed out that Sargent himself had acted as a kind of curator when he presented Mrs. Gardner with a sketchbook, in which he had pasted all of his drawings that were related to the painting. This explained to Mrs. Gardner and others "how this tremendous picture came into being," said Cikovsky. "He made my job a little easier."
You can trace the phases of the "El Jaleo" creation through many of the works in this show, beginning with "Capri," done before Sargent made the Spanish trip that resulted in "El Jaleo." In "Capri" the vision of a woman dancing at an oblique angle to music on a rooftop is a pale preview of the masterpiece's theme. Two oil-painting versions of a young "Spanish Gypsy Dancer," in a bright shawl, her teeth and eyes flashing, hint at what's to come, as do studies for "The Spanish Dance," outdoors at night wit h stars exploding above them, and "The Spanish Dance" itself.
There are also sketches of dancers leaning and swooping, of their hands, of musicians singing and playing with abandon, and a study for the Spanish dancer that preceeded "El Jaleo." It was lost until four years ago when it turned up in Grenoble, France, in damaged shape. As the restorer, Mr. Goldrach, described it, the painting was "rolled on a broomstick, torn all over, filthy dirty" but salvageable, and he restored it to the sumptuous oil painting we see here.
Moving beyond the scope of the single dancer, Sargent finally produced "El Jaleo" with its fiery dancer tapping and stomping her way across the right of the painting, with the silent music of the strumming musicians and wailing singers, the noise of the crowd, literally the "ruckus" of the flamenco. Asked by a reporter to assess Sargent's place in American painting, National Gallery director J. Carter Brown said simply: "If he had died the next year [after "El Jaleo"], he would be in the canon of America 's greats."