Avedon and Sargent

As noted in my first post on 5 March, I expect the major focus of this blog to be the sharing of aural, i.e. musical, moments of note.  Because visual images–be they paintings, photographs, frames of film, or other fine art forms–can also cast a spell in a matter of moments, I’ll plan on mixing in some of those along the way as well.

Today, I share two images that, to borrow a line from Cameron Crowe’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Jerry Maguire, “had me at hello.”

The first is a photograph of the actress and dancer Cyd Charisse taken by Richard Avedon in June of 1961.


I saw it for the first time, in postcard form, as a teenager, and displayed it on walls in my dorm rooms and apartments all through college and medical school (along with drawings and pictures of George Harrison, Al Pacino, Bruce Springsteen, Gary Cooper, Meryl Streep, and my friends and family, among others; see below).

Dorm room wall

In 1989, about one decade after discovering Avedon’s shot in a postcard rack, I came face to face with John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum, in Boston.

El Jaleo

I was immediately dazzled: by the shadows on the wall and the backward angle of the dancer’s body, by her white skirt and how she was holding her free hand, by the splash of red scarf or shawl off to the right.  While the painting’s title refers to a type of dance, it also refers more broadly to the commotion that audience members and other performers make to encourage the dancer: shouting olé!, clapping hands and snapping fingers; we can see all that in the painting as well.

Looking at them with fresh eyes today, it’s striking how similar they are: both depict female dancers, leaning back, with an outstretched arm in the air.  But the key element they share, and what I now understand immediately grabbed me all those years ago, is a sense of passion and exuberance, of recklessness and abandon.  A sense of life.

Trivia tidbit: Say ‘Fred Astaire’ to most people and no doubt ‘Ginger Rogers’ springs immediately to mind, but Cyd Charisse was another of his talented dancing partners on film, most memorably in The Band Wagon (the magic starts at 1:07) and Silk Stockings.


  • One of my favorite Avedon images is of Marilyn Monroe. I had never seen it before and it wasn’t your typical MM photos. It looked to me that perhaps she was waiting for him as he made adjustments to his camera because she is completely in-Marilyn like. Vulnerable.


    • I know exactly which one you’re referring to. I love Avedon. I went to an exhibition of his work in London in 1995 and lingered in the galleries for a l-o-n-g time. Thanks for visiting the blog, Ray.


  • I love the way you write and your subjects…it is so refreshing after all the “mommy blogs” I read!!


    • Thank you, Kerry. Positive feedback is very encouraging for someone who is only two weeks into her blogging experience!


  • Thank you for reminding me of the Sargent painting. I saw it when visiting Boston some years ago and liked it very much. I dug out a postcard that I bought in the gallery and have propped it up on my desk. It’s quite different from the kind of society portraits that Sargent was celebrated for, and it’s a wonderful composition. I particularly like those two wall-hanging guitars that seem oddly insubstantial. I wonder whether Picasso knew this picture – those guitars could almost have been drawn by him.


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