Olé! Sargent’s “El Jaleo”

This painting, El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent, stirs up an odd mix of sadness, joy, and memory of  inebriated abandon in me, partly because it reminds me of spring break my senior year of high school.

John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo

At 18 years old, I found myself in a tiny restaurant in Madrid with an empty glass and a full pitcher of sangria in front of me. Someone poured a bit of the fruit-studded wine into my glass—no more than two ounces—and despite my immediate dislike of the alcoholic beverage, I had to finish it in order to get a refill of coke. (Typical American!)

That small first taste of alcohol was enough to make me a bit tipsy. And then, a mariachi group came in.  I was doe-eyed, having fun, and crushing on the handsome Spaniards dressed in black, playing their stringed instruments. I bought the CD. detail from John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo

I suppose the correlation between this painting and the memories it brings up might happen with any scene of Spanish musicians dressed in black, but I think El Jaleo is particularly good at showing the emotion of the experience. Either way, I enjoy looking at it.

There are two guitars on the wall, high overhead. One seems solid, the other more like a ghost. Ghost guitar, oooooo. There are other “haunting” bits as well, like the man sitting just to the left of the dancer, head thrown back, Adam’s apple bulging, mouth gaping, eyes dark sockets. If he were painted separately, I’d say he is drawing his last, painful breath. Here, though, it seems likely he is singing with abandon, totally engrossed in the experience of vocalization. Evidently, “Serious flamenco singing has often been compared to the blues, because it conveys a gritty, unvarnished, anguished mood.” (Heller) I’d say our vocalist fits the anguished descriptor for sure.

detail from John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo

Above the empty chair, near the hands of the man on the left clapping, there is a handprint on the wall. . It reminds me of that Tom Hanks movie Castaway where he is stranded on a desert island with only a volleyball for a friend. Weird. I’m 100% certain Sargent wasn’t thinking about that film. Why the handprint? Is it paint or food? Not much food here—though there is an orange in the chair. Is it blood? Hmm… sinister.

While left of the dancer is intensely somber, even a smidge spooky, to the right of her is pride and joy.
detail from John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo

Notice the woman in the red shawl with big red lips painted on. Perhaps she is another dancer, she exudes “stage presence” despite her elbow nearly covering her face. Proud, head raised high, visibly engaged in her colleague’s dancing. Seated, but probably only waiting her turn. She shows me that I can smile and clap while watching this. I can enjoy myself, despite the men a few chairs down being so dark in mood.

My favorite person here is the pixie in the orange shawl.  Impish smile, crazy big ear (more likely a flower or decoration for her hair, but it goes along with the elvish impression I get). She is not clapping, her arms are up in the air, the one visible hand making a gesture similar to the dancer’s. Pixie looks like she has only just begun to sit down, or like she might bolt up unable to contain herself this very moment. She radiates joy, and helps me feel joy, too.

As ominous as the handprint on the left was, there is cheer in the graffit on the right. Just legible, in that same rust hue on the wall, I read “ole!”

If El Jaleo feels oddly familiar to you, but you don’t have a Spanish flamenco experience, perhaps you are recalling a fleeting image of it in the John Wayne’s movie The Alamo:

film still from John Wayne's "Alamo"

I adore when films do this. Here, the director has had his cast and crew recreate El Jaleo—guitars on the wall, orange on the chair, man with his head tilted back, women in bright shawls. Yet, this frozen instant, while super cool, doesn’t have the same emotional power that Sargent’s painting has for me. I haven’t watched the Alamo since I learned about El Jaleo, so I don’t know what the impact is within the context of the film, and I refuse to judge a movie by one frame, but this particular instant, while faithfully staged, falls short in my opinion. It lacks the energy, emotional content, and movement that the painting achieves.

How does John Singer Sargent pull that off? I think some of it is attributable to the kind of brush strokes he uses. If you compare this study he did in preparation to a cropped version of the final work, you see that the way he applies the paint to the canvas is different. In the study, things are closer to being photorealistic, the shading is more gradual, the lines are truer to life. In the final, especially on the folds of her skirt, the strokes are looser or freer, a bit closer to what you see in impressionism. I think this style of brushstroke gives the painting more movement and energy than either the study or the still from the film.

Those “loose” brushstrokes might lead you to believe that Sargent dashed this off in a hurry. You are halfway right. One source I read said it is estimated he may have completed the canvas in as few as three days. However, this was after a lot of preparation. Not only did he paint the above study of the dancer, he sketched out a multitude of expressions and gestures, and carefully planned the overall composition. It was three years between his visit to the flamenco cantinas of Spain the execution of the final painting.

After my dinner that night, the group I was traveling with attended a flamenco performance. Unlike in Sargent’s pictures, we were seated fairly far away, up above the spectacle. It was showy, but I didn’t experience any real emotional depth. In the years since John Singer Sargent’s trip to Spain, flamenco has been heavily commercialized, and I’m sure I saw a very tourist-trap version of the art form. Also, I think the sangria had worn off by then. Either way, I prefer the painting.

What memories or feelings does this bring up in you? Any modern movie references affect how you see El Jaleo?


Thomas Edison’s lab made this very early recording of Carmencita doing some traditional Spanish dancing (not flamenco). Sargent painted her portrait around the same time.  And if you want some modern flamenco, there is a youtube channel for it.

I highly recommend this scholarly article, for a flamenco performer’s perspective on the painting and its criticism: What’s There, What’s Not: A Performer’s View of Sargent’s “El Jaleo”, Nancy G. Heller, American Art, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Spring, 2000), pp. 8-23, Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3109324

This website was a great source for images and the tidbit about the Alamo.


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