Sargent's 'El Jaleo' Dances Anew National Gallery Plays Host to the Famed Portraitist's Restored Painting

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JOHN SINGER SARGENT'S thrilling "El Jaleo," now on loan to the National Gallery, is really about how some creative artists are seized with a vision or an obsession that will not leave them until the image is realized: as close to perfection as possible.

Think of Monet's series paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, or water lilies, or haystacks, or the gardens at Giverny; or think of Andrew Wyeth's fixation with his German model Helga.

In the non-painting world, there are novelists, poets, and composers who have been inspired by one memory or imagined scene to create a work. Larry McMurtry once said a final scene flashed into his consciousness before he wrote "Horseman, Pass By" and the novel unfolded out of it. William Styron told an audience that he woke up one Sunday morning and saw an image of the concentration camp survivor who had lived in his boarding house. So real, so clear was she that he sat down to begin a novel about her, which emerged several years later as "Sophie's Choice."

American painter John Singer Sargent had an image of a Spanish flamenco dancer lodged somewhere in his memory or imagination as a young man - perhaps going as far back as his first visit to Spain at 12 with his expatriate American parents. This show contains nearly 50 Sargent works of art on this one theme - seven oil paintings related to "El Jaleo," 40 drawings and watercolors, and the painting itself.

This is the first time the legendary painting has been on loan since 1914, from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

The painting has been recently restored by expert Alain Goldrach to its dramatic, flashing contrast of colors and lyric brushwork. Faces that were hidden in the murky, uncleaned painting are now visible; colors sing, and even the little orange placed on a ladder-back chair at left can be seen. The contrast before and after cleaning is so sharp this might even be a sister painting to the original. There was, however, a romantic atmosphere of mystery in the unrestored painting that was wiped away along with the grime of half a century.

The director of the Gardner Museum, Anne Hawley, says "El Jaleo" came to the Gardner in an unusual way. "It was not acquired through the advice of a {Bernard} Berenson or through Mrs. Gardner purchasing at auction. She fell in love with it. It was owned by Bostonian Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, who had purchased it shortly after it was painted.

"And she wanted it very much, so she created a very crafty strategy in that she offered to take the picture while he had his house closed for the summer and was away, and she installed it in what we call the Spanish Cloister at the museum - which she really built for this picture. …