John Singer SARGENT | La Carmencita

John Singer SARGENT
Italy 1856 – England 1925
France and USA 1874-90, England from 1890, with regular visits to France, Italy and USA

La Carmencita c. 1890
oil on canvas
canvas 232.0 (h) x 142.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchased from the artist 1892
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Gérard Blot

Sargent was born in Europe, of expatriate American parents. He was profoundly influenced by the Spanish masters Diego Velazquez, El Greco and Francisco Goya, and by Edouard Manet’s reworking of them. In the 1870s he studied at the atelier of Carolus-Duran, and placed second in the entrance examination for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, on his second attempt. After early success at the Salon, Sargent lived in Britain and travelled occasionally to the United States for portrait-painting binges.1

The Spanish dancer known as La Carmencita first came to fame at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, where Sargent probably saw her performing in a tent. She presented herself as a classically trained ballet dancer named Carmen Dausset, neither a Gypsy nor flamenco performer.2 The name was famous from Bizet’s opera Carmen of 1875. By February 1890 she was dancing in a music hall in New York City,3 when Sargent encountered her at a private performance at a friend’s party and asked her to pose for him.

In the portrait, the painter is the performer as much as the dancer. Theatricality is the means through which Sargent presents the moving figure in an imaginary space. A dark background is overcome by flaring footlights, which light the dazzling yellow satin and lace costume, and the dancer’s paler arms and face. Her dramatic Spanish colouring restates the light tones, her red lips the bright colour, and her dark hair the importance Sargent placed on the manipulation of tones to represent reality, rather than line. In its manipulation of compressed space and repeated dynamic angles, Manet’s painting of another Spanish dancer, Lola of Valencia 18624 seems to be the model for Sargent’s composition. He had the chance to view Manet’s retrospective in Paris in 1884, and again at the Exposition Universelle in 1889.

After the painting’s triumphant debut at the annual spring exhibition of the Society of American Artists in May 1890, it was shown at the Royal Academy in London the following year. It was praised for its liveliness and drama (‘the picture of the year … intensely modern, intensely realistic in treatment’), although the same writer saw it as a little decadent (‘something of that halo of decay which gives a lurid fascination to the creations of Baudelaire’).5 On its exhibition in Paris at the Salon in 1892, La Carmencita was bought by the French state. Perhaps this went some way towards restituting the hostile reaction Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X 18846 had met at the 1884 Salon, where it was criticised as scandalous, blatantly erotic and artistically eccentric.

Christine Dixon

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. Sargent painted twenty-four portraits on his American trip between September 1887 and May 1888; see Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: the early portraits, New Haven: Yale University Press 1998, cats 192–215, pp. 197–217.
  2. M. Elizabeth Boone, Vistas de España: American views of art and life in Spain, 18601914, New Haven: Yale University Press 2007, p. 139.
  3. Carmencita was the first woman to appear in front of an Edison motion picture camera in 1894. See the Library of Congress, American memory site, viewed 25 August 2009, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/papr:@filreq(@field(NUMBER+@band(edmp+4019))+@field(COLLID+edison)).
  4. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
  5. Claude Phillips, Art Journal, 1891, p. 198, quoted in Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: portraits of the 1890s, New Haven: Yale University Press 2002, p. 22.
  6. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.