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Madame X  
John Singer Sargent 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY 
Oil on canvas 
208.6 x 109.9 cm  
(82 1/8 x 43 1/4in.) 
El Jaleo 
John Singer Sargent 
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston  
Oil on canvas 
237 x 352 cm (93 3/8 x 138 1/2 in.)
Cigarreras in Seville 
Ralph Wormeley Curtis (1854-1922) 
American painter  
c. 1888  
Private collection 
Watercolor on paper 
919 7/8 x 13 7/8 in.)  
Jpg: local source

When Ralph Curtis sat down with his good friend John Singer Sargent in May of 1884, after the latter’s public rejection of his now very famous Salon painting Madame X, it was Ralph’s intent to get John thinking about happier times. In the last of Ralph’s letter to his parents about that most unhappy event, he said: “I want him to go to Seville and do the tobacco girls with me in Nov.”  

Curtis’ peculiar reference to Seville and the tobacco girls alluded me for some time,  but now I know -- and this painting is part of it. What he was doing was an obvious attempt by a good friend to turn Sargent’s attention away from his public rejection and towards his most popular and powerful painting El Jaleo (which Sargent painted in 1882 and showed at the Salon that year). The French loved that painting.  In the eyes of many, El Jaleo beckoned the passionate opera “Carmen”. The heroine of the opera was a tobacco girl (or a girl who rolled cigarettes in a factory -- which was how they were made - by hand). Ralph wanted to get Sargent thinking about his successes and not his failures. 

Sargent did agree to go, but plans were canceled because of a reported cholera outbreak in Spain later that year (‘84). 

Curtis eventually went himself (approximately '88) but Sargent wasn’t with him. In Seville he paints Carmen Arrested at the Tobacco Factory in Seville (1888 location unknown) and exhibited it at the Paris Salon in May ‘88. He also painted a flamenco dance picture and in reference to it, he writes to Isabella Stewart Gardner, the owner of El Jaleo and close mutual friend of Sargent's: 

It is much more terre a terre than John Sargent’s “page macabre”. I have the audience too, who is to me half the fun. It is realistic to the last paint! And delights the profane sitters.  
(footnote 1)
The theme of "Carmen" was most powerful in the imagination of the French and when the writer Howe Downes visited Seville he described the tobacco factory this way: 
The girls were very decidedly décolletées, and some of them came startlingly near to wearing nothing at all, but they usually threw a light shawl over their shoulders when they saw a party of male visitors approaching. One room alone contained no less than 3,300 women. As we entered the sounds of their voices was like a distant roar of the breakers on the ocean strand. The cigarreras, many of whom are great beauties, form a class by themselves, and unhappily are not noted for their chastity. Of course we thought of the “Carmen” of the opera, and on coming out of the factory were pleased to discover that an infantry barracks occupied the opposite side of the square, thus verifying the scene of Bizet’s work. 
(footnote 2)
Curtis' watercolor: Cigarreras in Seville, this painting, speaks of that same subject but less allegorically than his Carmen Arrested (which I would love to see an image of). This painting could have possibly been part of a group of paintings he did with the anticipation of that Salon exhibition. 

by: Natasha Wallace 
Copyright 2000 all rights reserved 


  • See more on Ralph Wormeley Curtis
  • 1) Letter from Ralph Curtis to Isabella Stewart Gardner, Seville, 25 March [1888], Isabella Stewart Gardner Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Reel 396; quoted in Espana: American Artists and the Spanish Experience, M. Elizabeth Boone, Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, 1988, p. 60, 1998
  • 2) William Howe Downes, Spanish Ways and By-ways, with Glimpse of the Pyrenees (Boston Cupples, Upham, & Company, 1883), pp. 87-88; quoted in Espana: American Artists and the Spanish Experience, M. Elizabeth Boone, (Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, 1998), p. 60
  • Natasha's cliff notes on Carmen
  • See more discussion on the Opera Carmen-- more in depth 
  • Isabella Stewart Gardner
By:  Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2001 all rights reversed
Created: 10/20/00
Updated 11/15/2001