The Familiarity of John Singer Sargent

While looking through an art book recently, I laid my eyes on John Singer Sargent’s 1882 painting El Jaleo. My heart skipped a beat and then may have stopped for multiple milliseconds. This painting features a dark color palette, with strong illumination centered on the garment of a flamenco dancer. The movement of her steps are palpable, and when the viewer comes upon this composition, it is as if you have just walked into the very room in which she expertly throws down her dance.

My own reaction to this work was fed by a sense of recall that brought to mind the time I spent in Spain. I was there for three years, a military brat living out part of her teenaged life. Even many decades later, I cherish the experience, which was fed continually by the culture of Spain and the passionate attitudes of its people.

My parents were not about to ignore the opportunity to explore the Iberian Peninsula during the time we were stationed there. Spanish culture was a big part of our lives, as was road tripping around the country and seeking out the highlights. It was through this experience that I was introduced to flamenco.

Witnessing a flamenco performance is a rich experience. The dance takes center stage and is backed by a very specific style of guitar in which the musicians sing and use the instrument in a percussive way. The dance itself is delivered with marked fluidity yet serves up exclamatory points through the motion of the dancer’s feet. Notably, the roots of flamenco are based on tradition and improvisation, and traditional flamenco music is more often passed down rather than being written down.

John Singer Sargent, Sketches of Dancers, 1879-1882

Lingering over a photo of Sargent’s El Jaleo took me back to Spain instantly. I could hear the singing and the beats that are played out through the dance. Another layer of this age-old musical tradition is the hand clapping, or “palmas.” Palmas can be heard in unexpected places in Spain, no guitar backup required. Natives are known to lay down palmas in places like Madrid’s subway, for instance. Or in a restaurant. Or in a park. The Spanish are very proud and celebratory of their culture.

Throughout the course of his life, John Singer Sargent visited Spain six times. On his first visit, during the year of 1879, he spent five months touring through Spain and North Africa. His attention was deeply pulled by the natives, and he was especially fond of depicting women in the throes of dance. This is evident in the sketches he created while touring, and the work he emblazoned on his canvas, post travel, to include The Spanish Dance.

John Singer Sargent, The Spanish Dance, 1879-1882 | Oil on canvas  (34 3/4 x 32 15/16 in.)

Why does a 19th century painting have impact in the 21st century? Sargent’s ability to capture the truth of a flamenco performance resonates, even long past his lifetime. In fact, therein lies the effectiveness of a painting by John Singer Sargent: truth in composition and relatability in theme. This association of familiarity, at least for me, evokes a sense of comfort. It raises my recall of incidences in my own life that are filled with sentiment.

Believe it or not, there exists an entire psychological study on the subject of novelty versus familiarity in the realm of aesthetic value. The results seem to indicate that the visual experience that is considered novel is the one which holds the most weight:

A number of studies have demonstrated that people highly appreciated novel, challenging, and ambiguous stimuli which has been buttressed by a neural substrate of the pleasure of acquiring novel visual information. In addition, a third line of research suggested that the moderate degree of novelty, neither familiarity nor novelty, was preferred the most. Yet, it has not been clarified in the literature whether a novel artwork is always preferred to a familiar one or how novelty interacts with other factors affecting aesthetic preferences.

Familiarity and Novelty in Aesthetic Preference: The Effects of the Properties of the Artwork and the Beholder

I am not at all surprised by this. My own love of abstract art comes from a place inside that seeks the novel aesthetic. That is to say, I am drawn to work that allows me to see from a very different perspective, one which feeds my eyes as a viewer (not an artist) in a way that I have never experienced before. On the other hand, the work of realism practiced by artists such as Sargent feeds the other side of that same coin, and my appreciation rests heavily in what I have seen and experienced in my own lifetime.

For artists of today who explore this same genre, familiarity still strikes and aids in surfacing a memory that is so personal. A work by my favorite landscape artist of today, composed from a perspective that places the viewer in the midst of a waterway, has me thinking without hesitation, “I’ve seen that same place from a canoe.” The fact of the matter is, I probably haven’t. There’s a good chance he conjured this work by referring to multiple studies, created in different places. But his adeptness at composing the scene takes me to a place which I feel I have seen and experienced. The triumph of an artist’s brush can be achieved through both familiarity and novelty, as the viewer might also be thinking, “I wish I could see that in person.”

With Sargent’s El Jaleo, it is possible that one might actually still be able to witness this scene in person. Flamenco originated in the 15th century, and the art of this dance is alive and well in Spain. My own recall of Madrid includes dark interiors, punctuated by the melodic sounds of traditional music and dance, as depicted in this painting.

The cave bars in Madrid, or “drinking caves”, such as Meson de la Guitarra, create an intimate atmosphere and are best experienced late at night, making the excursion feel like a delightful secret, especially when stumbled upon by complete accident. But the proprietors are expecting you and want your memories to be filled with authentic vibrations punctuated by surges of joy. I have a feeling John Singer Sargent walked this same experiential path, no matter which part of Spain he happened to be tripping through at the time.


John Singer Sargent: His Life and Works in 500 Images by Susie Hodge

Interpretation of Impressionistic Figure Painting: El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: El Jaleo | Four Sketches of Dancers

The Hispanic Museum & Library: The Spanish Dance

Virtual Lecture: Spain’s Influence on John Singer Sargent

Understanding Flamenco

Full Flamenco Performance

Familiarity and Novelty in Aesthetic Preference: The Effects of the Properties of the Artwork and the Beholder

Trip Advisor: Meson de la Guitarra

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