John Singer Sargent in Morocco

September 16, 2022 0 Comments

In 1879, years before he became known as the world’s most famous society portrait painter, John Singer Sargent left Paris, where he had trained as an artist in the studio of Carolus-Duran, and travelled south, to Spain and north Africa.  Carolus-Duran idolised Velasquez, and Sargent’s first stop was Madrid, to study paintings by Velasquez in the Prado Museum, and then on to Ronda, Granada and Seville, before he crossed from Gibraltar to Morocco.

John Singer Sargent, A Morocco street scene (1880) (Yale University Art Gallery)

Sargent wrote to a friend, Ben del Castillo, from Tangier on 4 January 1880:

Now the weather is beautiful and the temperature is just what it ought to be. We have rented a little Moorish house (which we don’t yet know from any other house in the town, the little white tortuous streets are so exactly alike) and we expect to enjoy a month or two in it very much. The patio open to the sky affords a studio light, and has the horseshoe arches, arabesques, tiles and other traditional Moorish ornaments. The roof is a white terrace, one of the thousand that form this odd town, sloping down to the sea.

John Singer Sargent, Open doorway, Morocco (1880) (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The white buildings and winding streets of old Tangier and the coastal city of Tétuan excited Sargent’s artistic imagination. He spent days exploring them, taking with him a series of small thin mahogany boards and some oil paints.  His sketches, simple but carefully composed, are unlike almost anything else he had painted before, or was to paint in the rest of his long career.  They have much more in common with the works of the architectural painters of the Dutch Golden Age, and of proto-modern painters of plain surfaces like Thomas Jones Pencerrig than with the work Sargent is known for, or the work of his contemporaries. 

John Singer Sargent, Courtyard, Tétuan, Morocco (1880) (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

What interests Sargent most is the brilliance of the light of Tangier, and how it differs according to whether it appeared directly, or as reflected on the white walls of buildings or steps.  He complicates the simple geometries in the shapes of the buildings by cropping them, and adds a further complication by his careful treatment of the varied textures of their walls.

John Singer Sargent, White walls in sunlight, Morocco (1880) (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Morocco oil sketches were not quite without parallel in Sargent’s earlier work.  On the island of Capri in 1878 his eye was taken by a long staircase between two walls, and he captured the view in two strikingly modern paintings, ‘Capri’ and ‘Staircase in Capri’.  ‘Staircase’ is painted from the very bottom, looking up to the blue sky far above, the reflected light and shadows striking the walls and steps in different ways.  The treatment and effect are impressionistic.

John Singer Sargent, Moorish buildings on a cloudy day (1880) (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It’s true that Sargent may have seen his oil sketches of Tangier’s streets as preparatory sketches for future larger canvases, where they might serve as mere backgrounds to human figures, but the care he took in making them suggests that he thought of them as independent works in their own right.  Today they look far ahead of their time in their combination of formal simplicity and tonal sophistication.

John Singer Sargent, Moorish buildings on a sunny day (1880 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Two major works emerged later from Sargent’s travels in Spain and Morocco.  The first was ‘El Jaleo’ (1882), a picture of a Spanish Gypsy dancer set against a row of musicians in the background.  It’s highly dramatic in its contrasts of light and shade, and points the way forward to Sargent’s later portraits, often equally theatrical in their lighting and poses.  ‘El Jaleo’, more than any other picture, made Sargent’s reputation as a young artist.

John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo (1882) (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston))

The second picture, exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1880, stemmed from his Moroccan stay.  Entitled ‘Fumé d’ambre gris’, it’s quiet and static – avoiding the narrative and clichéd Orientalising of earlier European painters – but it relies on a similar extreme contrast as ‘El Jaleo’, between the exotic image of a woman standing before an ambergris burner, painted in exotic detail, and a simple white pilaster and capital, taken apparently from the house Sargent stayed in in Tétuan, set against a plain wall and floor tiles.  The latter echo the pared-down approach of his oil sketches, and again relies on subtle tonal shifts of colour. 

John Singer Sargent, Fumé d’ambre gris (1880) (Clark Art Institute)

Sargent leaves the overall significance of the picture – is this an apotropaic ritual or an operation to perfume clothing? – ambiguous.  His public seems to have liked the ambiguity, the subject and the composition, since the painting excited much interest when it was exhibited and sold quickly for 3,000 francs.  The novelist Henry James was impressed:

I know not who this stately Mohammedan may be, nor in what mysterious domestic or religious rite she may be engaged; her in her muffled contemplation and her pearl-coloured robe, under her plastered arcade, which shines in the Eastern light, she is beautiful and memorable. The picture is exquisite, a radiant effect of white upon white, of similar but discriminating tones.

Sargent made later trips to north Africa, but he never seems to have recaptured the moment of that first, entrancing encounter with the simple shapes, lights and tones that he found in Tangier in early 1880.

John Singer Sargent, Staircase in Capri (1878) (private collection)

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