John Singer Sargent painted his most inspired and innovative works on his travels away from the studio, when he was free of the demands of his wealthy sitters' commissioned portraits. Likely created during a productive trip the artist made through Portugal and Spain in the summer of 1903, Spanish Convalescent is an intimate and compelling watercolor that demonstrates Sargent at the height of his abilities, inspired and at ease. In its daring and confident application of washes, Spanish Convalescent manifests Sargent's mastery of watercolor and his ability to use the medium to create some of his most brilliant compositions.
Spanish Convalescent is one of a powerful series of seven watercolors Sargent painted depicting recuperating Spanish soldiers in the Hospital Real (Royal Hospital), which was founded at the end of the fifteenth century by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and located in Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain. When abroad, Sargent was particularly attracted to sitters with especially alluring and exotic physical qualities, who piqued his interest as their lifestyles and appearances offered a stark contrast to his American and English patrons. The Spanish soldiers, who Sargent found so appealing, may have been veterans who had returned from the Spanish-American War and the convalescing men, who embodied a combination of strength and vulnerability, intrigued him, "arousing sympathy and curiosity in equal measure." (R. Ormond, E. Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes, 1900-1907, New Haven, Connecticut, 2012, p. 114)
Spanish Convalescent is a beautifully rendered and psychologically compelling portrait of one of these soldiers. The solitary figure looks brazenly at the viewer through milky brown eyes, his slightly slouched pose conveying confidence and a wisdom beyond his age. His face is tinged with the sense of melancholy and his crossed-arm stance conveys the detachment associated with a man recovering from war. Sargent's bravura application of washes and the close cropping of the composition imbue the work with a sense of immediacy and intimacy as if the viewer has just come across this war weary young man. In Sargent's most successful portraits, as demonstrated by Spanish Convalescent, "the attitudes in which he caught his sitters were subtly insightful, telling much about their character, which could be discerned in the angle at which a head was turned, or the tension in the figure or gesture, and not by the facial expression alone." (D.F. Hoopes, Sargent Watercolors, New York, 1970, p. 22)
Spanish Convalescent manifests the fluidity and dexterity of Sargent's best watercolors. Here he employs several isolated strokes of vibrant color--in the concentrated blue-violet shadows of the collar and eyebrow as well as the crimson lips and hat--which are brilliant and expressive contrasts to the primarily tonal washes of the background and sitter's clothing. He deliberately leaves areas of the white paper bare, utilizing them as striking highlights to indicate sunlight and shadow. Spanish Convalescent is a masterful example of the economy of Sargent's greatest works--each wash was applied with purpose and there are no erroneous or excess strokes. The result is a visually striking and engaging work of the highest order.
Donaldson Hoopes wrote of the watercolor medium's significance in Sargent's oeuvre, "Watercolor seemed to release him from constraints about pictorial 'manners;' since most of this output was not intended for exhibitions, he may have had fewer reservations about 'letting go' than was possible with the things he put before the public or a client. Many of his best watercolors became gifts to friends and to members of his family--often inscribed with a brief dedication." (Sargent Watercolors, p. 19) Indeed, Spanish Convalescent was one such gift to Flora Wertheimer, the wife of Sargent's great patron, the art dealer Asher Wertheimer, "who commissioned a dozen portraits and groups of himself and his family (almost all of these are now in Tate, London)." (John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes, 1900-1907, p. 139)
Sargent painted Spanish Convalescent circa 1903, when he was at the height of his abilities and had reached the pinnacle of success and critical acclaim for both his portrait and subject works. One of the most celebrated watercolor painters of his generation, Sargent painted with a dashing watercolor technique that emphasized his rich color and bravura brushwork. His great gift, as embodied by Spanish Convalescent, was his ability to imbue his works with the appearance of effortlessness despite the considerable skill and exertion that he put into such splendidly successful compositions. It is the masterful use of light, wash and color to capture the spirit of his subject in Spanish Convalescent that defines Sargent as one of the great American watercolorists and affirms Donaldson Hoopes statement: "There are few artists who have responded with greater visual excitement to the world of light and form. Sargent's watercolors obey the requirement of art in the most important way: they remain fresh forever, they endure." (Sargent Watercolors, p. 20)