Masters: Drawing Out Sargent

0611sarg2_600x406_1As well as any artist before or since, John Singer Sargent learned the best lessons in value, light, and form and used them throughout his life—lessons clearly visible in his drawings.    

by Mark G. Mitchell

Sleeping Child
graphite on
off-white wove
paper, 1111/18 x
Collection The
Museum of Art,
New York, New

John Singer Sargent “could make bed sheets drying on a line into a compelling image,” someone once wrote. To live with one of his watercolors was “to live with sunshine captured and held,” said another admirer. When the famous 19-century English actor Edwin Booth was preparing to have his portrait painted by him, he was advised by friends to sandpaper his soul first—because everything would appear on canvas. Sargent is the painter “before whom all other artists fall on their palette knives in despair,” quips contemporary painter Gregg Kreutz. Writing for Linea, the journal of the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan, Kreutz tried to figure out why. “What makes Sargent paintings so vivid, so attractive?” he asked in his review of a 1999 exhibition of Sargent paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “The late 19th century was overflowing with accomplished painters turning out credible depictions of similarly themed subjects. But Sargent makes most of them look like old news. What’s the difference? Why do we amble by these other artists and screech to a halt in front of a Sargent? Obviously his drawing skill is a factor. Even though, it is said, he only did minimal preliminary drawing, his feel for gesture, proportion, internal structure, and dimensionality gave his work an underpinning of highly accomplished draftsmanship.”

Sargent was renowned for his wizardry with colors and a brush. But he drew like crazy. “He did every type of drawing, did them individually as works of art and as preparatory drawings for paintings,” says Eric Denker, a senior lecturer at the National Gallery of Art and a curator of drawings and prints for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, both in Washington, DC. “I think, for him, drawing was the basis of everything.”

"Clearly, he was always drawing,” says Miriam Stewart, an assistant curator of drawings at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The body of Sargent’s drawings and sketches over the course of his life shows that he was an indefatigable draftsman, constantly drawing and taking notes wherever he went. We have sketchbooks from his years as a teenager that provide the basis of some of his early training.” “I think drawing was something he cared a lot about,” agrees Richard Ormond, Sargent’s grandnephew and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the artist, the author of numerous books on art, and a former director of the National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory, both in Greenwich, England. (Ormond’s grandmother was Sargent’s younger sister, Violet, whom Sargent painted several times.)

Sargent began drawing around age 4. He didn’t stop until close to his death at age 69. His parents, originally from Philadelphia, lived as wandering expatriates in Europe. Sargent and his siblings grew up almost like outlaws, on the run from American culture. The family lived out of suitcases, and the children were mostly home-schooled, learning music, literature, and foreign languages. Working beside his mother, who was an amateur watercolorist, Sargent taught himself to sketch and paint washes. His subjects included family members and family friends and everyday scenes of European life around him—animals, windmills, German forests, and Alpine shrines.

El Jaleo
1882, oil, 94¼ x
137. Collection
Isabella Stewart
Gardner Museum,

He copied artwork in museums. He took private lessons from professional painters in Rome and Florence, where for a brief time he also attended a financially-challenged art school. At age 17, Sargent decided to make art his career and, with his father’s help, enrolled in a Paris atelier. These teaching studios were a bit like the farm leagues of the French fine-arts establishment. Sargent attended one run by Carolus-Duran, a successful portraitist and a most interesting teacher. Carolus-Duran, whose real name was Charles Auguste Émile Durand, taught an approach that veered from the French Academic tradition. He emphasized “direct seeing” and “direct painting.” His students drew from the live figure and casts of classical statuary, just like students at France’s official fine-arts training institution, École des Beaux-Arts, in Paris. But these exercises at Carolus-Duran’s atelier were occasions to riff with the art materials rather than to practice. Carolus-Duran urged them to get inspired and paint the subject loosely and freely in the first blow—or “au premier coup.” He also stressed that the key to painting was correctly seeing values and value relationships, and that artists should find ways to say more with less. Or, as Carolus-Duran said, “In art all that is dispensable is harmful.”

Sargent would incorporate these measures into his painting and drawing for the rest of his life. Still, he wanted the rigors of formal training. He passed the entrance exams and was the only one from his atelier that year to be admitted into École des Beaux-Arts. Sargent was chomping at the bit to learn when he came to Paris, Ormond believes. “He took to all of it like a duck to water,” he says. “I think his whole persona went through an amazing growth at this time.

“He put a lot of effort into his drawing—just as he put it into his painting,” continues Ormond. “There is one drawing of the Venus de Milo that is highly worked. He won third prize at the École for a very formal drawing of a tripod. There are some wonderful life studies he made at this time that are not well known. They’re not the formal ones of the École—instead they have the informality of the studio of Carolus-Duran, with these wonderful soft effects and details of feet, hands, and faces.”

In 1879, after trips to North Africa and Spain, Sargent made sketches of Spanish dancers and musicians that would result in a tour de force painting. “El Jaleo is a play on light relationships,” Ormond says, “and with that whole set of Spanish drawings from the late 1870s and early 1880s he did in preparation for it, it’s almost like he invented a new form of graphic.

Madame X

graphite on
off-white wove
paper, 911/16 x
Collection The
Museum of Art,
New York, New

“These are not compositional drawings, but detail drawings—studies of heads and hands,” Ormond continues. “He did the proper thing here—posing people in a big studio and sketching them. He really vigorously worked through his ideas. This went on for 15 months. Then, when it was time for painting, he just boomed it all down. He worked it out, got it all in his head. He must have painted El Jaleo very rapidly. When you get up-close to it, you see that it really is a kind of big sketch with all of these little sketches worked out in it.”

Sargent made piles of sketches to prepare for his most notorious painting, the seven-foot portrait of a young Parisian beauty, Madame Pierre Gautreau. He was looking for a pose that would say the most using the least about this brashly interesting local celebrity—so he turned her head in a slightly haughty profile. He put her in an amazing black dress that forced a viewer’s eye over her perfect figure. He let her right shoulder strap down. Salon audiences gasped. Sargent would later rename the work Madame X to protect her privacy—but it didn’t help; everyone knew who Madame Gautreau was. She was finished in French polite society and so, it seemed, was Sargent. Nobody wanted their portrait painted by him.

Sargent beat a retreat across the English Channel to try to resuscitate his career, a gambit that worked. He began slowly, painting family and friends who rallied around him in southern England. He began a large canvas of two girls—the daughters of his illustrator friend Frederick Barnard—lighting Japanese lanterns in a garden, in the twilight. Two months in the making, the painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (its title taken from a popular song of the day that Sargent and his friends sang around the piano) met with excitement at its showing at the Royal Academy, in London. The Tate Gallery—the national gallery of British art, also in London—soon purchased the work. Shortly thereafter, customers were lined up on both sides of the Atlantic for the artist’s work. And no wonder. Sargent’s portraits were bold, alive, and just eccentric enough to raise a comment. They could make their subjects suddenly famous.

It is true that for most of his oil portraits Sargent did little if any preliminary sketching on paper. “If it was a more complicated work, such as a Madame X, he would do a lot of sketches,” says Texas painter Phillip Wade, who teaches the class “Painting Like Sargent” at the school of the Austin Museum of Art. “But for a simple one he would just figure out where the head was going to go and get started. Much of drawing is about placement. He could do that without thinking. Having such confidence, such a skill in drawing, makes it easier to paint. For him, drawing with the brush was second nature.” “You must draw with your brush as readily, as unconsciously almost, as you draw with your pencil,” Sargent himself said.

After the turn of the century, Sargent segued from his oil portraits to charcoal drawings—or, as he called them, “mug shots”—which he could complete in a single sitting of one to three hours. Feeling restless, and becoming weary of his sitters and the responsibility he felt toward them, he wanted to get out of the portrait business altogether, but people kept asking for them.


ca. 1905,
charcoal, 24 x
18. Collection
King’s College,

“His answer to the demand was his charcoal mugshots, of which he did about 700 or 800 over about 15 years,” says Ormond. “These were all about rendering things in values, all about lights and darks. The head emerges from the dark—brilliantly captured in the round.” “He tossed these off in short order,” says Jane Myers, the curator of drawings at the Amon Carter Museum, in Fort Worth, Texas. “You can see that he didn’t labor over them. He captured the sensuousness and the spirit of the person and modeled the figure, the highlights, and accents very quickly. The thing that strikes you about these charcoal sketches is that, although Sargent was doing them on a regular basis and could do them blindfolded, there is still this remarkable liveliness. You are seduced by his line.”

Between 1890 and 1916, while Sargent worked mornings on commissions in oil or charcoal, he was spending most of the rest of his time on a vast new project that he hoped to make his ultimate statement as an artist: his cycle of murals for the third floor of the new Boston Public Library, designed by the prominent Beaux-Arts architectural firm McKim, Mead and White. It would be a far cry from Sargent’s luxuriant portraits of the rich and famous, his fond depictions of family and friends lounging and napping outdoors, or his watercolors of Venice as seen from the seat of a gondola.

Sargent had chosen a theme and title for this project: The Triumph of Religion. He wanted to show the evolution of spiritual thought from ancient pagan deity worship through Judaism and the Christianity of the modern Western world. Lunettes and mural panels carried themes such as Pagan Gods, Israelites Oppressed, Israel and The Law, Messianic Era, Heaven, Hell, Synagogue, Church, and Mysteries of the Rosary. His depictions, more educational than devotional in flavor, would borrow from practically every art tradition of which Sargent could think. The artist ventured to Europe, North Africa, Turkey, and the Middle East to gather his visual ideas. He sketched medieval sculpture in French cathedrals and Bedouin Arabs in their smoky tent camps in the desert. He copied Persian artifacts and Sumerian idols. He absorbed Greek, Egyptian, Byzantine, and early Christian art.

Back home in his London studio, he built a 1/3-scale model of the Boston Public Library’s barrel-vaulted hall. Sargent then drew hundreds of drawings of nude models (mostly male) in all the different poses that he thought he might use in his mural epic. These are some of the artist’s most famous drawings. “In these figure drawings, he drew in charcoal then rubbed out the highlights,” says Stewart. “They are just brilliant.”

Helen Sears
1912, charcoal,
23¾ x 17½.

Variously described as “America’s Sistine Chapel” and “an uncanny spectacle,” Sargent’s 30-year labor of love was completed during a time when the worlds Sargent knew on both sides of the Atlantic were changing in the midst of war. Today The Triumph of Religion evokes the feeling of an over-the-top silent movie. “The pagan end of the hall is so much fun to look at with its lurid figures,” Stewart says. “It’s almost a burlesque.

“We have one of the sketchbooks for the murals,” she adds. “There are scenes with the scales in the Last Judgment presented in different arrangements, with overlapping lunettes. In these really hasty sketches Sargent is trying to figure out the composition. There are a lot of scribbly studies, not superfinished drawings, but he’s following all the steps. There are drapery studies, where you can see Sargent investigating the draperies in more detail.” In other sketches Sargent transcribed elements of decoration/ornamentation, architecture, and costume that he culled from his trips to libraries and museums. With an ornithologist’s eye, he sketched pheasant wings to help him draw wings on angels and seraphs.

“In later years the murals were derided as a cul-de-sac in his career,” says Ormond. “But the more you look at them, the more creative and extraordinary they appear to be—Michelangelo by way of King Kong. He did hundreds and hundreds of drawings for them. In a way, with these he relearned the academic discipline of his youth.

“He had to keep in mind a mass of things in the whole—the iconography, how it was going to work lengthwise and crosswise, as well as how all the individual panels would work,” Ormond continues. “I have never come across full-scale cartoons, but he did quite elaborate oil and drawing sketches for the compositions, and of course these were all drawn from life. Traditional Beaux-Arts murals were ‘the thing’ at the end of the 19th century—he wasn’t going to mess around with the process. He sketched everything first. For a big scheme like that, if you’re thoroughly grounded in the tradition, you know that’s what you have to do. These are highly designed, highly worked pieces with allegorical figures. He was being very disciplined and practical, and his draftsmanship is very accomplished in the service of his theme.”

From his boyhood on, Sargent had steeped himself in the Classical, Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque traditions. He’d copied the works of Andrea del Sarto, Bernini, Cellini, Donatello, Frans Hals, Jean-François Millet, Tintorreto, Titian, Velázquez, and modern artists such as Degas. Now he was bringing everything to bear on these murals—his atelier and École training, experience helping Carolus-Duran paint and decorate a ceiling, his decades of scholarship, and his sketching travels.

“And so we have the monsters of hell gobbling people up,” Ormond says. “But he’s not just doing Michelangelo. The Triumph of Religion has Sargent stamped all over it. When he gets into mural mode I don’t think you’d mistake his work for anybody else’s. He’s absorbing all these things and regurgitating them in his own style, his own idiom, and giving it his own visual inflection.”

In June 1918 the British War Memorial Committee commissioned Sargent to paint a large canvas with the theme of British and American troops serving together. The artist donned a self-styled uniform that made him look, someone said, like “a sailor gone wrong” and crossed the channel. He spent three months sketching troops, trenches, vehicles, and horses on the French front. Toward the end of his stay, he observed a crowd of about 100 men collected around some hospital tents—victims of a mustard-gas attack. Sargent made sketches. The following year he presented his monumental Gassed (20' by nearly 8') to the memorial committee.

1919, oil,
91 x 240½.
Imperial War

Gassed was proclaimed the Royal Academy’s picture of the year in 1919 and remains one of the unforgettable paintings of that or any war. “Gassed was inspired by what Sargent had seen, but it was a ‘studio production,’ where he posed the figures back home,” Ormond says. “They were probably professional models in costume. He made many studies. I think it’s an extraordinary image. It’s a frieze, frozen and static, almost as if it’s the same one figure, moving across the mural, like those captured motion photos by Muybridge of a man walking. He never fell below certain standards. He had a terrific command of his craft, a fantastic control, and part of his command was that his draftsmanship was on par with his painterly skill.”

The Fogg Art Museum exhibited Sargent’s sketchbooks in the show “Under Cover: Artists’ Sketchbooks” through October 22, 2006. Drawings curator Miriam Stewart explains, “By exhibiting his sketchbooks and watercolor tubes and brushes, we wanted to show a ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at his work because he always had been seen as so facile. It’s not to say that he labored over his paintings. But he prepared and planned and did so much. He did all the things an artist is supposed to do.”

We’ll leave the final words on the subject to Ormond. “Drawing was at the basis of his art, as it ought to be for artists because it teaches you to see accurately and be able to transcribe what you see with precision. Drawing is about the immediacy of the medium; the clarity of form, light, and shade; and the relation of things to one another and how you work these things out. A painting is elaborate. You build a painting up. But the drawing is instinctive. It’s the bedrock and always has been.”   

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