Head of a Spanish Musician signed in pencil 'John S. Singer Sargent' (upper right) oil on unstretched canvas 19 1/4 x 14 1/2in
Provenance: Gift from the artist to Ms. Peggy Willmore Higginbottom Thence by descent
Note: Signed and dated 1880, this head study of a Spanish flamenco musician most likely stems from the period when Sargent was in Spain and began initial work on his masterpiece El Jaleo, now in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It contains many of the elements found in the studies leading to the final composition. Our figure wears the same traditional circular hat, the black lapelled jacket and collarless white shirt, as worn by the musicians and dancers in the Gardner work. Moreover, his face is dramatically lit in a similar fashion as the onstage figures in the studies and final composition of El Jaleo. It is possibly related to two oil on canvas studies of seated musicians in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, but has more of a portrait quality to it. The Gardner Museum also possesses several charcoal head studies of musicians that appear to employ the same model. The work may have been an early study where Sargent was working out details of costume rather than composition.
Sargent employs the flamenco costume again in his 1882 portrait of Albert Belleroche now in the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center. In the portrait it appears that Sargent's friend jauntily donned the outfit and hat for an informal pose.
Head of a Spanish Musician was apparently given to Peggy Higginbottom by Sargent around the turn of the century. She was the wife of William Higginbottom, an artist who studied at the Bolt Court Art School, Slade School of Art in London and the Academie Julien in Paris and later exhibited at the Royal Academy. According to family tradition, on a visit to Sargent's studio with her husband, Peggy admired the sketch of a man she refereed to as the 'Matador'. Sargent then supposedly grabbed a scalpel and cut the work from its stretcher and presented it to her. This may explain the unstretched state of the work today. The canvas, which subsequently passed through the family, is said to have rather miraculously survived the bombings of World War II, left still hanging on the only standing wall in a destroyed home.
The members of the John Singer Sargent Catalogue Raisonne Committee have examined this work and will include it in the forthcoming addendum to the catalogue raissone.