‘Gypsies seem to have been born into the world for the sole purpose of being thieves,’ Cervantes begins his story of The Little Gypsy Girl. ‘They are born of thieving parents, they are brought up with thieves, they study in order to be thieves, and they end up as past masters in the art of thieving.’ But despite their thieving reputation, the bands of gypsy travellers who appeared in western Europe in the 1420s — from Egypt thought the English, from Bohemia thought the French — were a source of fascination. They came and went like the wind, they predicted the future and their costumes and dancing were the definition of exotic. Their appeal to artists was irresistible. They were painted by Caravaggio, Hals and de la Tour, and in 1621 Jacques Callot — who, legend had it, ran away aged 12 with a band of gypsies to Florence — recorded their free and easy lifestyle in a series of prints, warning, ‘You who take pleasure in their words, watch out for your linen, your silver and your pistols.’
Callot’s etchings are the earliest images in Bohemian Lights, the Spanish edition of an exhibition that recently arrived at the MAPFRE Foundation in Madrid from the Grand Palais in Paris. The show’s argument is an appealing one: that the modern myth of the artist as bohemian genius evolved out of the romantic idea of the gypsy as free spirit. In the 18th century, we see French and English painters still treating gypsies as exotic outsiders: fortune-tellers to fashionable ladies in the case of Watteau, picturesque wanderers on the earth in the case of Gainsborough. The revolution in perception comes with Courbet, who proclaims in 1853: ‘In our overcivilised society, I must lead the life of a savage …the great, wandering, and independent life of the gypsy.’ His larger-than-life ‘Gypsy Woman and her Children’, painted that year, foreshadows socialist realism: heroic figures burdened with bundles and babies, so close to the picture plane they’re almost in the room.
A few years earlier, the writer Henri Murger had crystallised the urban myth of bohemian Paris in his semi-autobiographical Scènes de la vie de bohème. But Murger (who died in penury aged 39) also cultivated the rural myth of a return to nature, settling in the 1850s in the artist’s colony of Barbizon, where painters like Corot were busy projecting a Shakespearean vision of Arden on to the forest of Fontainebleau. By the time Corot painted his ‘Gypsy with a Tambourine’ (c.1865) — looking more like a resting Bacchante in her Roman tunic and circlet of leaves — Barbizon was a tourist destination for Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie.
For authentic gypsy life, artists had to travel to Spain. Manet, who made the pilgrimage in 1865, painted a grubby-fingered Murilloesque urchin drinking from a pitcher (he claimed only to like Murillo’s urchins when they were ‘lousy’). Sargent escaped the ‘pimp’s profession’ of portraiture to Seville, where the nocturnal glamour of his ‘Spanish Dance’ (1879–80) contrasts with the day-to-day reality of his ‘Gypsy Encampment’ (1912–13), with its woman weaving a basket while her man opens a mule’s mouth to inspect its teeth.
Gypsy men, for obvious reasons, get less attention from artists than gypsy women. Courbet’s so-called ‘Gypsy in Reflection’ (1869) is a raven-haired temptress with half a nipple peeping out from her slipping chemise. Henri Regnault — who spent 1869 with a gypsy family, telling his brother, ‘I’ve finally found a people that understands me’ — has his dancer stripped to the waist for flamenco practice. Kees van Dongen’s ‘Gypsy’ (1911) keeps her modesty and her mystique behind a door held tantalisingly ajar with long red nails. In matters of gypsy dress, the Spaniards lead. Goya set a trend by painting himself in the embroidered jacket and black hat of a majo dandy, but Hermenegildo Anglada-Camarasa’s posturing ‘Andares Gitanos’ (1902) in their sumptuous flamenco costumes — Klimt crossed with Lautrec — look strangely like drag queens.
By the standards of the Spanish gypsy woman, the plumage of the Parisian bohemian male is disappointingly drab. The artist heroes of the second half of the show lead sartorially colourless lives in dingy garrets. Santiago Rusiñol’s Ramón Canudas worships at an open woodburner with a blanket on his knees; Degas’s Desboutin scratches away at an etching plate in semi-darkness with a dead pigeon on the table behind. Dinner or subject? Possibly both. Less gifted artists push the stereotype to the brink of absurdity, as Louis Gallait’s ‘Art & Liberty’ (1849) descends into Jules Blin’s ‘Art, Misery, Desperation, Madness’ (1880). The comic potential, meanwhile, is exploited by Daumier in a series of satirical lithographs. One captioned ‘Wood is expensive and the arts aren’t going well’ shows two artists jitterbugging in a studio to fend off frostbite — flamenco it ain’t.
In a Spanish coda to the exhibition, we see the Montmartre model being exported to Barcelona by the young Picasso, his brilliant draughtsmanship surviving on scraps of paper with large bites taken out of them, either by rats or starving artists. Picasso completed the modernisation of the artist’s image begun by Goya. As to the modernisation of art, visitors to MAPFRE can follow that development in a parallel exhibition of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay.