Images like El Jaleo lean toward the daring, risky, unconventional, dramatic, erotically off-center, and odd. Because nomadic Gypsies were believed to ignore ethical principles and exalted superstition over orthodox religion, they endured oppression in numerous countries during the nineteenth century, but artists and bohemians idealized them as free spirits. Bizet’s opera Carmen, first performed in Paris in 1875, scandalized the public with its tale of a proud, lusty Andalusian Gypsy torn between an army officer and a toreador.
During his travels in Spain in 1879, Sargent was mulling over a major work of art in which he could express his love of Gypsy music, dance, and picturesque costumes. On his return to Paris he set to work on a wide horizontal picture whose proportions simulated the shallow stage space of popular musical establishments. He named the painting El Jaleo to suggest the name of a dance, the jaleo de jerez, while counting on the broader meaning jaleo, which means ruckus or hubbub. The painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1882 with the more explicit title El Jaleo: Danse des gitanes (Dance of the Gypsies).
The best evidence of his own excited reactions to live dance performances can be found in the pencil sketches of a Spanish woman that he included in an album assembled for Isabella Stewart Gardner. They are among his fastest, most intuitive works. In one drawing a torrent of fast hard lines suggests the twisting shawl from which a majestic neck and outstretched vamping arms emerge.
Source: Trevor Fairbrother, "El Jaleo," in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston:ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 159.