Washington Irving was the son of immigrants. His father was a Presbyterian Scot, his mother Cornish. He was born on April 3rd, 1783, the same week that New Yorkers celebrated the ceasefire that ended the American Revolution. His parents named their son after George Washington. They had settled at 131 William Street, Manhattan, and were part of the city’s merchant class.
Washington began writing letters to the New York Morning Chronicle in 1802. He gained recognition as a satirical author in 1809 with A History of New York using the pseudonym Dietrich Knickerbocker. He riveted readers with his irreverent combination of fact and fancy.
Irving was a quintessential New Yorker. The man who coined the nicknames Gotham for New York City, and Knickerbocker for New Yorker, was also one of the first American writers to earn acclaim in Europe. He was instrumental in re-introducing Spanish culture to an American readership. The passion for “exotic” Spain culminated in Edison’s filmed documentary on Andalusian dance, the first record of its kind.
When Irving first came to Spain, it was a country that had lost touch with the American continent and the rest of Europe. Since the late sixteenth-century Protestant Europe had depicted Spain as a backward nation symbolized by despotic rule, cruel persecution, and brutal repression. Rapid developments in the printing and publishing of visual images helped spread the perception of what has been termed “La Leyanda Negra” (The Black Legend).
Liège-born engraver Theodoor de Bry fled the Southern Netherlands around 1570 because of Spanish Catholic control and religious persecution. He eventually settled in Frankfurt to set up a publishing house. Between 1590 and 1618, he and his sons illustrated ten volumes of American exploration and travel literature with more than six hundred original and borrowed engravings.
Most Europeans learned about the indigenous people and historical events of the New World through their prints, however distorted. As he never traveled across the Atlantic, De Bry used local models for landscape and figure types. As an exiled Lutheran, he emphasized the cruelty of Catholic conquerors towards the natives. Detailed imagery of barbaric Spanish acts reinforced the emergence of the Black Legend.
This perception of Spain as an inferior ‘other’ was exported from Britain and the Low Countries to the United States and would stick. Spain was everything that America strove not to be. Washington Irving was educated with these perceptions in mind.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century the sharpest consequences of Spain’s negative image started to recede. French Romantics became obsessed with the perceived exoticism of the region. Chateaubriand visited the country which, in 1826, inspired him to write Les aventures du dernier Abencérage. The story put Granada and Andalusia on the literary map (and was read by Washington Irving).
Eugène Delacroix visited Spain in 1832, a journey that had a profound impact on his development as an artists. In May 1840, Théophile Gautier set off from Paris for Spain. Hired by the journal La Presse to serialize a travelogue, he recorded his vivid and well-written impressions with great enthusiasm. Five years later these columns were published as Voyage en Espagne. In 1846, Alexandre Dumas published an account of his Spanish travels.
Writers and artists experienced Spain as a land untouched by “progress” and this perspective generated a fairy-tale image of a country inhabited by proud aristocrats, gypsies, bandits, beggars, bullfighters, and red-hot dark-eyed women.
Irving was staying in Paris in January 1826 when he received a letter from Alexander Hill Everett who, recently appointed Minister to Spain by President John Adams, invited the author to join him in Madrid. Washington was offered a unique research opportunity as a number of manuscripts relating to the Spanish conquest of the Americas had recently been made public. He was also given full access to the Ambassador’s fine library on Spanish history.
He arrived in Madrid in February staying in the country until August 1829 when he was appointed Secretary to the American Legation in London. His “Spanish” spell proved a productive literary period. Over the next decade produced four books: The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), Conquest of Granada (1829), Tales of the Alhambra (1832), and Legends of the Conquest of Spain (1835).
In these works the author blended historical research with romantic storytelling in a celebration of Spain’s colorful past. His tales created a vogue and inspired generations of writers and artists to make their own pilgrimages to Spain seeking picturesque scenes to portray. The Black Legend was turned into an Exotic Myth.
Irving arrived at the port of Seville in the spring of 1828. He sailed aboard Betis, the first steam ship that traced the Guadalquivir River from the Gulf of Cádiz. He stayed in a picturesque house in the old Jewish quarter, spending a year in the city to study in the Archive of the Indies. He thoroughly enjoyed the life and culture of the city and the region of which he left his impressions in a diary (published in 1926 by New York’s Hispanic Society).
During the second half of the nineteenth century, artists began to add Spain to their European tours to capture the country’s scenic charms and customs. A large number of American artists traveled (via Paris) to the country to absorb local subjects and styles into their own work. Seville became the epicenter of this renewed interest in Spain. Having trained in Philadelphia and Paris, Mary Cassatt ventured alone to Spain in 1872/3 to study the country’s masters and to follow the artistic path of other painters and that of Édouard Manet in particular.
Manet was fascinated with seventeenth-century Spanish art, but he visited the country only once. His brief trip in the autumn of 1865 made a lasting impact. As he was not invited to participate in the art show at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris, he hosted his own exhibition at the Avenue d’Alma, just across the street from the entrance to the fair, showing more than fifty works. Some twenty paintings revolved around Spanish themes. The show did not attract much attention, but artistically his display put Spain firmly on the modernist’s map. Manet’s images of a traditional bullfight (paradoxically) provided inspiration to an almost endless line of avant-garde writers and painters.
Having visited the Prado in Madrid, Mary Cassatt made her way to Seville. Having arrived in late October, she loved the city’s ambience. With the intention of painting original works in the Andalusian town, she was offered a studio in the Casa de Pilatos, a sixteenth-century palace belonging to the Medinaceli family. During her stay, she created several Spanish scenes, including “After the Bullfight” (1873), a matador portrayed in casual pose away from the violent spectacle in the ring.
Two years later, George Bizet’s opera Carmen was first performed on March 3rd, 1875 at the Opéra Comique in Paris.
The Carmen Stereotype
Mid-nineteenth century France was obsessed with the enticing sights and sounds of exotic locales. By the time Carmen had its premiere, Spanish song and dance were already popular in Parisian theaters and cabarets. In 1874, Léo Delibes tapped into this fascination when his song “Les filles de Cadix” (The Girls of Cadiz) became an instant hit.
Bizet capitalized on this vogue, although it took a while to convince the public. His disregard for established conventions shocked the opera’s first audiences. The reviews were appalling. After its 33rd performance the composer collapsed and did not live to see the show become a perennial success. For decades, Carmen was the most popular opera in Paris, celebrating a gala 1,000th performance in 1904.
Based on Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella of the same name, the story is set in old Seville with its medieval ramparts and military barracks in the town itself and with bandits in the mountainous countryside outside the city walls.
The tale concerns Don José, an army officer who has the misfortune to be seduced by the eponymous “gypsy girl.” Dressed in red, Carmen is hot-tempered, reckless, and cold-hearted. A pleasure-seeking spirit she loses interest in their relationship, responding instead to the attention of a bullfighter who had recently arrived in town. Driven by jealousy, Don José murders his “femme fatale” in broad daylight outside the arena where a bullfight is taking place.
In Romantic literature, the gypsy woman had been stereotyped as deviant, provocative, and sexually alluring character. This construct of a taboo world was juxtaposed with a code of Victorian behavior that prescribed women to be chaste and submissive. Carmen’s murder sent a reassuring message to middle-class audiences that, in the end, immorality would be punished.
Bizet composed his opera in Paris and based his story on a French novella. As the composer never traveled to Spain, he had to rely on his imagination and printed anthologies of folk songs as source materials. For all its Spanish veneer, Carmen is essentially the product of Parisian sensibility and was written for a French audience. Carmen as a character, in the words of Noel Coward, is “no more Spanish than the Champs-Élysées.”
The Pearl of Seville at Tenderloin
Carmen Dauset Moreno was seven years old when the world took note of Bizet’s Carmen. Born in 1868 in Almeria, Andalusia, she first danced professionally at Malaga’s Cervantes Theatre in 1880. Nicknamed the “Pearl of Seville,” she was known to European and American audiences as La Carmencita.
Carmen became internationally famous after performing as the “Spanish Gypsy Dancer” at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. When she appeared at Joseph Oller’s Nouveau Cirque that same year, she was spotted by Bolossy Kiralfy who contracted her to travel to New York. She made her debut in the ballet Antiope on August 17th, 1889, at Niblo’s Garden on Broadway.
Having ended the professional association with Kiralfy in early 1890, her fame mushroomed throughout New York when she was hired by John Koster and Albert Bial to appear in their Concert Hall on 23rd Street. Located in the heart of Tenderloin the vaudeville theater was known for its bawdy performers. Carmencita’s “piquant” Spanish dancing was an instant sensation.
Her huge success led a tour of the United States during which she performed in most major cities. She was a superstar. Her devotees gave parties in her honor (“Carmencita Balls”), she attended grand events, and danced at posh private parties. She was every artist’s Muse, posed for Napoleon Sarony in his photographic studio at 37 Union Square, and advertised Sweet Caporal cigarettes.
John Singer Sargent first encountered La Carmencita at the Exposition Universelle. Captivated by her performance, he called the dancer a “bewildering superb creature.” The two met again after her arrival in New York and he persuaded her to sit for him. Although he made many studies of her performing, Sargent opted to portray her stationary. Her face is rendered white and mask like from cosmetics with arched eyebrows, suggesting a fiery Spanish presence.
Sargent arranged for La Carmencita to perform at William Merritt Chase’s Tenth Street studio on the evening of April 1st, 1890. Afterwards, the latter painted a lively portrait of her in his typical impressionistic style that captures the dancer’s exuberance.
In 1890, the Edison Manufacturing Company started making pioneering films under the direction of William Dickson. Two years later the Black Maria Studio was built in New Jersey. In March 1894, La Carmencita visited the studio and performed for a film lasting twenty-one seconds. She was the first woman to appear in an Edison film; she was probably the first woman to appear in an American motion picture. It was the first ever documentary on Andalusian dance.
Four years later America and Spain were at war over Cuba. Spain’s defeat marked the end of the nation’s colonial rule in the Americas and turned its attention away from the pursuit of overseas power to domestic priorities. It was a beneficial development that led to a literary and cultural (modernist) renaissance and a period of much needed socioeconomic renewal and adaptation.
Illustrations, from above: Theodoor de By’s engraving of a Spaniard feeding slain women and children to his dogs, 1598; Washington Irving in the Archives of Seville, 1828 by David Wilkie (Leicester Museum & Art Gallery); lithographic poster for the 1875 première of Carmen; After the Bullfight, 1873 by Mary Cassatt (Art Institute of Chicago); Koster & Bial’s Concert Hall; Napoleon Sarony’s photo of Carmencita at his Union Square Studio, ca. 1890; La Carmencita, 1890 by John Singer Sargent (Musée d’Orsay, Paris); and La Carmencita, 1890 by (The Met, New York).