Untitled, ca. 1880
John Singer Sargent (United States, 1856–1925)
11 1/4 x 11 1/4 inches
Gift of the School of Art + Design, University of Illinois 1982-9-2
Born in Florence to American parents, John Singer Sargent belonged to a generation of American expatriates who shared a fascination with Europe and were attracted to the "exotic" cultures of Spain and North Africa. Sargent's art helped to both shape and satisfy that taste, as did the work of Europeans such as Édouard Manet and Jean-Léon Gérôme. Sargent's greatest success at the Paris Salon was his El Jaleo of 1882, a large, exuberant canvas that captured the dramatic movements of a flamenco dancer in a dark, atmospheric Spanish cantina. El Jaleo resulted from Sargent's first trip to Spain and North Africa in 1879–80. Most likely, this trip also provided the occasion for Krannert Art Museum's undated watercolor study of a North African man. Sargent found Morocco picturesque, and he wrote to a friend from Tangier that "the aspect of the place is striking, the costume grand and the Arabs often magnificent."
Sargent cultivated a serious interest in watercolor early in life, culminating in the virtuosity of the well-known works he made after 1900, in which he made free and bold use of transparent washes. Early successes include two watercolor views of Venice exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1881. Krannert Art Museum's watercolor has the look of a study rather than a work intended for display. Limiting his palette to earth tones and applying opaque pigment to the figure's face, Sargent placed less emphasis on the display of brushwork than the careful delineation of features.
Text by Michael Gaudio, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008