In 1879 John Singer Sargent, an American expatriate living in France, spent five months touring Spain and North Africa. At the time, fascination with the unknown aspects of Spanish and Moorish culture permeated Europe, inspiring literary works like Washington Irving's _Tales of the Alhambra_ (1832, 1851) and George Bizet's opera _Carmen_ (1875). Sargent returned to Paris with sketches of Spanish flamenco dancers, and the germ of an idea for his first full-scale salon painting, _El Jaleo_ (1882, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum). _El Jaleo_, which translates from Spanish to mean "ruckus" or "uproar," depicts a dimly lit hall in which a lone performer pounds out her dance to the accompaniment of guitars and shouts.
Sargent's composition for the monumental painting developed over three years through a series of drawings and watercolors. His principal effort went into the figure of the dancer, especially her gesture and dress. When it entered the Dallas Museum of Fine Art's collection, the _Study for the "Spanish Dancer"_ appeared to be the final preliminary work for _El Jaleo._ The rediscovery of a full-size oil painting of this dancer, Sargent's first attempt to paint this subject, revised this association. It is the previously unknown work, titled _Spanish Dancer_ (1880-1881, private collection), rather than for _El Jaleo_, that the Museum's watercolor relates to most directly, as the attitude and dress of the figure confirms.
Visual analysis of both the _Study_ and the completed _Spanish Dancer_ clarify Sargent's working method. Sargent's use of watercolor for a penultimate study is unusual. Sketching the basic forms in pencil, he deftly applied watercolor washes to give substance to the dancer's body and shawl, and to suggest the murky background. The dancer's skirts remain sketchily handled in this work; Sargent altered them once more in the _Spanish Dancer_. Sargent signed the watercolor, indicating his pleasure with its resolution, and its completion as a separate work of art in his mind.
Eleanor Jones Harvey, DMA electronic record (1974.1.FA), n.d.