Say “John Singer Sargent,” and images of large-scale portraits of patrician figures of the Edwardian age immediately come to mind. Sargent is considered the leading portrait painter of his time for his strong but subtle evocations of society figures, male and female.  

But while Sargent (1856–1925) worked as a portraitist, he was also fascinated with Spanish art and culture. He made seven extended trips to Spain in his lifetime, studying Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya and El Greco, copying their masterpieces — including Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” — and producing works with subject matter and style that often are far removed from his portraiture. 

Sargent’s Spanish works are on display at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco in a fascinating exhibit that originated at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  

“Sargent and Spain” begins in the Rosekrans Courtyard, where flamenco music provides the aural background to a stunning portrait of La Carmencita, the most well-known dancer of her time, in a sensational yellow dress. Adjacent is an oil painting, 1890’s “La Carmencita Dancing,” of her in vigorous motion, the various components of her white dress enveloping her in a tornado of movement.  

John Singer Sargent’s “La Carmencita Dancing” from 1890 is a highlight of “Sargent and Spain.” (Private Collection; Seattle, Washington/Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) 

Sargent’s sketching skill is evident in a series of drawings of dancers and particularly in sketches for “El Jaleo,” his large-scale painting of a majestic dancer in profile in a striking pose, arm aloft, and musicians and other dancers and observers who surround her. Though the painting, belonging to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, does not travel, these sketches give insight into the decisions Sargent made in creating this seemingly spontaneous work.  

Another gallery explores Sargent’s fascination with building exteriors. Sargent painted the Court of the Myrtles in the Alhambra with particular attention to the effect of the light on the cream-colored walls and its reflection in water. He also painted the interior courtyard of a deteriorating house, occupied by two pack mules.  

Sargent’s works of the period also reflected his interest in the Spanish Roma community, whose place in Spanish life is the subject of several stunning paintings. Rather than simply painting their public life, Sargent painted them in quiet family scenes, in the vicinity of white caves they inhabited, working in the olive groves or doing laundry. These oils are impressionistic, the background often as animated as the figures in its foreground. 

A painting of patients awaiting treatment at a medical clinic, in contrast, is a more somber scene of a large room, with a swab of light in its center providing contrast to the apprehension surrounding it.  

John Singer Sargent painted impressive scenes of the island off the coast off Spain, such as “Majorcan Fisherman” from 1908. (Private collection/Julia Featheringill Photography/Image courtesy of FAMSF)

Sargent also turned his attention to Majorca, an island off the Spanish coast, where boats and water provided sunlit scenes. There, Sargent focused on nature, painting stunning, vibrant scenes of pomegranates and figs filling the entire canvas, alive with color. 

In later years, Sargent completed a large mosaic for the Boston Public Library, titled “Triumph of Religion.” On view in the exhibition’s final gallery are examples of the religious imagery Sargent referenced in the mosaic, as well as photographs of the mural itself.  

“Sargent and Spain” is on view at the Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave., San Francisco through May 14. Admission is $13 (youth) to $28 (general). Visit Legion of Honor (