CARMENCITA, AN ICON OF MONTREAL MODERNITY IN THE 1920s
Randolph S. Hewton is now recognized as one of the most important Quebec and Canadian portrait artists of his time, a central figure in a loosely formed group of Montreal artists who imbued the cityscape with the colours of modernity.
Carmencita was first shown at the Fall Salon of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1922, held at the Art Gallery of the Art Association of Montreal (AAM, now the MMFA). As part of a contemporary Canadian art exhibition, it then travelled to at least five major institutions in the United States, in 1923 and 1924. (1) The work probably took its name from a famous Spanish dancer painted many times – the Pearl of Seville – who was famous in both Spain and France in the 1880s. She first appeared in New York City in 1889, at Niblo’s Garden. At Sargent’s request, she performed a dance in the studio of William Merritt Chase, who painted her in 1890, attesting to her success. The Montreal collector Sir William Van Horne acquired this painting in 1906 and then donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In 1890, Sargent also painted her portrait. A generation later, a short story titled “La Carmencita” was published in The Canadian Magazine. (2) In the story, an artist finds a picture of Sargent’s La Carmencita in an old magazine and disguises herself as the dancer for an impromptu masquerade. The subject continued to be topical! During that time, John Lyman also painted a Spanish dancer. Clarence Gagnon had done it before him with Olé, danseuse espagnole, exhibited in Paris at the Salon de la Société des artistes français, in 1906. The Spanish dancer was a recurrent subject in modern painting: we need only think of Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Van Dongen or Miró.
Hewton was interested in vivid colours and decorative effects, along with portrayals of modern society women. The freedom with which he composed the background gives the work a relatively abstract look, which complicates the reading of the red flowers and large comb typically worn by Spanish dancers. The modern woman is asserting herself here – a theme Hewton promoted when teaching his many female students, such as Prudence Heward and Sarah Robertson, at the AAM School of Art, and as the second president of the Beaver Hall Group, the country’s first association of artists in which there was gender equality.
JACQUES DES ROCHERS
1. Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota; The Kansas City Art Institute, Missouri; The Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island; Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts; Brooklyn Museum, New York.
2. Lilian R. Hay, “La Carmencita,” The Canadian Magazine (July 1924), pp. 151-154.