John Singer Sargent’s startling and cinematic 1882 canvas El Jaleo, lit from a mysterious source, casts a theatrical and eminently dramatic series of shadows that tower over the even more impressive gestures of the dancer, musicians, and accompanying clappers. The most flamboyant of Sargent’s early paintings, this vivid reproduction of a Spanish gypsy ensemble is made even more exuberant by the lack of barrier between the viewer and the performers. The careful articulation of light, space, and the evocation of sound makes the resonant, yet imagined, rhythms of the dance pulsate through the painting. First exhibited at the 1882 Paris Salon when Sargent was only 26, El Jaleo is deeply evocative of its times, reflecting a nineteenth-century preoccupation with the foreign, and an idealisation of the ‘other’. Artists and bohemians had idealized the world and life-view of the gypsies for some time, particularly celebrating their nomadism, close kinship ties, and rejection of organized religion. This scene, certainly informed by his 1879 journeys through Spain, saw Sargent embodying his love of Gypsy culture and a imbuing it with the hope and enthusiasm of his youth.
Created upon his return to Paris, Sargent named the painting as such to evoke the name of the dance, the jaleo de jerez, yet utilizing the more emblematic shortening jaleo, which means ruckus or hubbub. Subtitled ‘Dance of the Gypsies’ to emphasize the subject matter, this canvas is Sargent’s most intuitive work, prefiguring the mood of the post-Impressionists and even predicting the gestural and ritualistic worlds of early Modernism. The dramatic effects of light and the highly choreographed staging was studied and composed for over a year before Sargent began work. Without doubt the artist’s most ambitious work, El Jaleo is a wonderful geometric reproduction of movement.
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