The Mystery and Magic of John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo

This past Saturday, I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. The museum, which is one of my all-time favorite places to visit, is as eclectic as it is timeless. It was founded by the famous Boston-based art patron, socialite, and philanthropist of the same name, who lived from 1840 to 1924. Gardner was passionate about art and dedicated much of her life to travel and accumulating a collection of paintings, sculptures, and furniture from a variety of artists. The museum first opened to the public on January 1, 1903, and since then has dazzled and enthralled its visitors with its art spanning hundreds of years and representing a mixture of cultures. My visits to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum are always peaceful and restorative, and time and again I enjoy revisiting one of my favorite paintings, titled El Jaleo (1882) by American expatriate painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).

El Jaleo hangs to the right of the main courtyard in the Spanish Cloister gallery, which Gardner fashioned solely for the painting, acquired from her cousin T. Jefferson Coolidge. At about 8 feet tall and 11.5 feet wide, the painting, which depicts a riveting and energetic flamenco dance, feels larger than life. Upon viewing the painting, it is impossible to not feel the strumming of the musicians’ guitars and the clapping of their hands, the clicking of the dancer’s high heels, and the vibrant energy of the flamenco dance. The scene seems to have been captured at an instantaneous moment, as the dancer’s veil flies wildly behind her, her skirt billows and folds around her legs, creating dramatic shades of white, and as she casts a long, intense shadow on the back wall.

John Singer Sargent. El Jaleo. Oil on canvas, 1882. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Image per Wikimedia Commons.

El Jaleo is a true amalgamation of Sargent’s time with Parisian art instructor Carolus-Duran (1837-1917) and his contact with hispanism, which was a phenomenon after the Peninsular War of 1808, in which France and England occupied Spain and had a renewed fascination with Spanish culture [1]. El Jaleo evidences two lessons that Sargent learned from Carlous-Duran. Firstly, it depicts the “alla prima” technique, which was characterized by layering multiple coats of paint [2]. Upon a closer look in person, it is evident that Sargent utilized multiple layers of paint to build up the details in the composition, for example the dancer’s skirt and her shawl. Secondly, in his teachings, Carolus-Duran imagined a technique in which lines and color were unmistakably connected. He required his students to consider the relationship among tones, and how light would delineate form, forbidding them from executing preliminary sketches and under-drawings [3]. These teachings are evident in Sargent’s execution of El Jaleo, because the figures seems dictated by color rather than by premeditated lines, an idea that seems to echo the notion that the scene was captured in an instantaneous and specific moment.

Furthermore, El Jaleo reveals Sargent’s contact with the concept of hispanism, the renewed fascination with Spanish culture that was so characteristic of the turn of the century. Many of Sargent’s contemporaries portrayed Spanish culture, a nexus of European, African and Far Eastern influences, in an inaccurate and sometimes overtly sexual way; however, through El Jaleo, Sargent succeeded at portraying both Spanish culture and flamenco accurately [4]. In fact, he observed flamenco dance extensively during his travels, generating numerous studies of dancers and musicians, almost in contradiction to his teacher’s instruction [5]. Every component of the painting, from the dancers’ and musicians’ outfits to their gestures and motions, is a realistic depiction of flamenco dance, with no erroneous elements [6]. El Jaleo has such a fascinating history, both regarding its creation and its journey to the museum. I love the passion that Sargent imbued in this painting; it is truly a unique treasure and an arresting composition to behold. El Jaleo is one of the many masterpieces that makes the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum such an exceptional place to visit.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, located at 25 Evans Way, Boston, MA 02115, is open from 11 AM – 5 PM Fridays through Wednesdays, from 11 AM – 9 PM on Thursdays, and is closed on Tuesdays. El Jaleo is part of the museum’s permanent collection and is available for viewing year-round.


[1] Mary Crawford Volk, John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1992), 13-14; Nancy Heller, “What’s There, What’s Not: A Performer’s View of Sargent’s “El Jaleo,” American Art 14, no. 1 (2000), 10.

[2] Elizabeth Prettejohn, Interpreting Sargent (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1999), 9.

[3] Prettejohn, Interpreting Sargent, 16-17; R.A.M Stevenson, The Art of Velázquez (London, 1895) 102-104, 106, quoted in Mary Crawford Volk, John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1992), 60-61.

[4] M. Elizabeth Boone, Vistas de Espana: American Views of Art and Life in Spain, 1860-1914 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 120-124; Heller, “What’s There, What’s Not,” 8, 10-11.

[5] Mary Crawford Volk documented these studies extensively in her book John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo.

[6] For a comprehensive discussion of these elements, see Heller, “What’s There, What’s Not.”


Boone, M. Elizabeth. Vistas de Espana: American Views of Art and Life in Spain, 1860-

1914. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

Heller, Nancy. “What’s There, What’s Not: A Performer’s View of Sargent’s ‘El Jaleo.’”

American Art 14, no. 1 (2000): 8-23.

Prettejohn, Elizabeth. Interpreting Sargent. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang,


Volk, Mary Crawford. John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo. Washington: National Gallery of

Art, 1992.


4 comments on “The Mystery and Magic of John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo

  1. Thank you for highlighting this exquisite painting! One of my favorite paintings from one of my favorite painters. As most artists, I suppose, JSS has such a fascinating personal story. The scandal caused by his painting of Madame X is worth a bit of exploration for sure. Great website 🙂


    • Thank you, David! Sargent one of my favorite artists I’m happy you feel the same way. Madame X is definitely an exceptional painting too. 🙂


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