John Singer Sargent, Draughtsman:

Works from the Corcoran Gallery of Art

August 31 - October 30, 1999

John Singer Sargent, Draughtsman: Works from the Corcoran Gallery of Art

The expatriate American artist John Singer Sargent was a prolific draughtsman. In keeping with his dictum—”sketch everything and keep your curiosity fresh”—Sargent executed an extraordinary number of drawings over the course of his career. John Singer Sargent, Draughtsman features more than 90 works on paper from the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which has one of the most comprehensive collections of Sargent’s works on paper. Ranging from the early landscapes that he made in sketchbooks at age twelve to his later studies for mural decorations for Boston’s Public Library and Museum of Fine Arts, this exhibition presents New York audiences with an opportunity to trace the entire span of Sargent’s artistic development and to learn about his working methods. The exhibition coincides with the major John Singer Sargent retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on view through September 26.


The expatriate American artist John Singer Sargent was a prolific draughtsman throughout a long, industrious career. Although he is best known today for his precisely rendered portrait drawings and his virtuoso watercolors of Venice, Sargent’s graphic output encompassed virtually every category of subject matter including allegory, history, still life, and scenes of daily life. The drawings were done for a variety of reasons including copying old masters, spontaneous on-site studies from nature, and large-scale life studies from studio models. A survey of Sargent’s graphics presents both the familiar public face of the celebrated portraitist and the more private side of the artist in the studio.

Sargent was born in Florence to American parents in 1856. While the family made their home in Italy, they led a peripatetic existence, traveling regularly in Switzerland, France, Austria, and Germany. During these trips, Sargent received his first drawing lessons from his mother, a Philadelphia patrician who was an amateur watercolorist. His first sketches were done when he was four. Sargent’s formal training began in 1868 in Switzerland with Joseph Farquharson, a British artist. In Rome the following summer he worked in the studio of an American painter, Carl Welsch. The young artist conformed to an accepted academic regimen, drawing from books and copying from paintings and sculpture. Carefully articulated landscape studies were drawn during sketching outings, on longer trips or in the environs around Florence. View of Bellosguardo, Florence is typical of this group, a tightly-rendered drawing of the carefully observed details of the countryside. As Evan Charteris, the artist’s friend and biographer remarked, “The drawings were precocious, not in imagination, but as literal records of what was immediately before him. He drew whatever came to hand, never worrying to find special subjects, but just enjoying the sheer fun of translating onto paper the record of what he saw. He seems, as a boy, never to have drawn out of his head.”

By 1869 Sargent had decided on a professional career as an artist, and devoted progressively more of his time to drawings, from copies of Renaissance masterpieces in Florence to sketches from nature developing his skills in rendering the effects of light. In 1873 he enrolled briefly in the life class of the Accademia delle Belli Arti in Florence, but found the school badly run and unsatisfactory. The next year the Sargent family moved to Paris for the young Sargent to continue his art studies in the vibrant atmosphere of the Paris ateliers.

In May of 1874 Sargent enrolled in the studio of the French academician Carolus-Duran. An American student later recalled Sargent’s arrival at the studio. “I can see the slim youth of seventeen [sic], his arms entwined around a formidable roll of studies which, when disclosed to the eye of the master, caused him to exclaim, ‘You have studied much,’ and then, with the caution which made ‘not too bad’ the highest praise lavished on a student’s work, he added, ‘Much that you have learned you must forget.'” The tight, finished style of the early work was soon replaced by a more expressive and spontaneous use of line. In addition to studying in the atelier, Sargent attended classes at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, where he was awarded third class medal for ornament drawing in 1877.

Sargent returned to Italy routinely throughout his career. A trip to Naples and Capri in 1878 resulted in a number of remarkable early works, but it was Venice that would have the most enduring fascination for Sargent. For thirty years, Sargent would use the sparkling light of Venice as a vehicle for his most daring and virtuoso forays into watercolor. Campo dei Frari, Venice is one of Sargent’s earliest Venetian works, dating to an extended stay during the autumn and winter of 1880-81. On this trip Sargent met James McNeill Whistler, who had a significant influence on Sargent’s approach to Venetian subjects. Sargent admired the older American’s work and embraced his practice of capturing Venice from a Venetian’s viewpoint. In this work, Sargent rendered the attractive little square adjacent to an important religious institution. The watercolor depicts two anonymous figures relaxing in the fading light of late afternoon. The careful brushwork and tightly controlled washes are typical of Sargent’s early style. Campo dei Frari, Venice, was shown at the Paris Salon in May 1881, making it one of the first watercolors Sargent ever displayed in public.

Few of Sargent’s mature drawings are dated, making an exact chronology difficult. Similar stylistic qualities appear in many of Sargent’s studies over an extended period of time, with small variation within particular subjects. Rapidly executed portrait drawings, such as the Portrait Sketch of a Seated Woman were done in a generic, sketchy style of free outlines and quickly shaded masses that elude precise dating.

Most of Sargent’s best-known drawings are finished charcoal portraits executed in the latter half of the artist’s career. Many are of famous sitters, aristocrats and well known personalities of the Edwardian era. A number, however, are informal likenesses of friends and studio models done during the period that Sargent was working on his studies for the later mural projects. A typical example is the portrait of Olimpio Fusco , an Italian model who Sargent presumably employed around the turn of the century. The simple, straightforward study of the head, seemingly floating in space, has the monumental presence of Sargent’s best commissioned portraits. Sargent’s economy of means in rendering the light as it plays across the forehead and chin contrast with the luxuriously thick corona of hair. The concise delineation of the features closely parallels a description of Sargent’s drawing technique.

He then took up the charcoal, with an arm extended to its full length, and head thrown back; all the while intensely calculating, he slowly and deliberately matched the proportions of the large masses of a head and shoulders, first the pose of the head upon the neck, its relation with the shoulders. Then rapidly indicated the mass of the hair, then spots locating the exact position of the features, at the same time noting their tone values and special character, finally adding any further accent or dark shadow which made up the head, the neck, the shoulders and the head of the sternum.

Sargent always encouraged his students to begin by describing the most obvious features with a sharp line, and then to allow the less obtrusive elements to be blended into adjoining tones. He urged them to finish a drawing within about two hours, to give the work a sense of spontaneity.

Much of the last thirty years of Sargent’s career was spent on a series of mural commissions. In 1877 Sargent had assisted Carolus-Duran on a ceiling mural of The Triumph of Marie de Medici for the Luxembourg Palace. The experience appears to have inspired Sargent’s imagination so that in 1890 he eagerly sought and was awarded a prestigious commission for the decorations of the Boston Public Library. He later received commissions for decorative work in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and at the Widener Memorial Library of Harvard University. The preparatory drawings as well as the paintings for these murals were carried out in England, and then installed in Boston over a period of thirty years. Approximately half of the drawings in the Corcoran Gallery of Art are preparatory studies for the Boston commissions.

The Triumph of Religion is the subject of the Boston Public Library decorations. The large barrel-vaulted interior is eighty four-feet by twenty-three feet, rising to twenty-six feet at its apex. The paintings fill the lunettes and friezes of the end walls and the adjacent ceiling vaults, six smaller lunettes on the side walls, and two wall panels set above a stairwell. Sargent designed the complex intellectual program to function thematically and decoratively. Images of the Pagan Gods precede subjects drawn from Judaism and Christianity. He modified his style as appropriate to the subject matter, from a broader naturalism in certain areas of the decoration to a more symbolist vocabulary in others.

Sargent began with small sketches and proceeded to larger drawings, and then to full-scale cartoons. Hundreds of drawings of the male nude were produced over the course of the mural commissions. Many were anatomical studies that allowed Sargent to explore the human body in diverse poses. Study for a
Devil in “Judgement”, in preparation for one of the side lunettes, typifies his method for posing a model in a difficult stance to study the musculature of the back in a stressful attitude. Although some drawings can be associated with specific figures in the murals, others are more general.

In 1918 Sargent agreed to undertake the decorative scheme for the rotunda of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Sargent modified the original coffered ceiling of the dome, adding relief to the program. The museum decorations provided Sargent his only opportunity to combine architecture, painting, and sculpture in a single, unified vision. The subjects of the two large oval decorations are allegorical: Apollo and the Muses, and Classical and Romantic Art. The style in the studies for the rotunda differs markedly from those of the library commission. Sargent utilized an ample, fully-modeled figure style for the dark, almost Byzantine interior of the library, but the illuminated atmosphere and more delicate architecture of the rotunda demanded a lighter touch relying on elegant proportions and refined outlines. The restrained, linear qualities of the museum drawings are clearly evident in the Studies of Heads for “Apollo and the Muses”. The three heads in the upper register of the composition are derived from the Apollo Belvedere, among the most famous of surviving classical statuary. Sargent included erudite references to earlier masterpieces in a number of the mural studies, from classical sculpture to Renaissance masters.

Towards the end of the First World War, the British Ministry of Information persuaded Sargent to travel to the Western Front to garner material for a large-scale work portraying the cooperation of British and American troops. Sargent left for the front in July of 1918 and immediately began sketches of soldiers and the details of military life amidst the devastation of human beings and the landscape. In September he witnessed a harrowing sight: a group of soldiers who had been subjected to a barrage of mustard gas standing in line at a medical station. Inspired by their resolute courage, the artist made notations for a possible mural. Gassed, the monumental resulting canvas, is a grim vision of the blind leading the blind, a modern version of the dance of death. Nine blindfolded soldiers are represented being led by two orderlies through a field strewn with corpses. In London during the winter of 1918-19, Sargent combined drawings from studio models with on-site observations to produce the enormous canvas. Sargent’s passionate response to the theme of youth and beauty ruined by war is evident in the preparatory drawings for the mural, such as the sheet Six Studies for “Gassed”.

Many of Sargent’s drawings remained in the artist’s collection at the time of his sudden death in 1925. After a series of memorial exhibitions, his family decided to donate many of the remaining drawings to museums and institutions dedicated to education. Through the generosity of the Sargent family, the Corcoran Gallery of Art possesses more than a hundred drawings spanning the entirety of Sargent’s working career. This selection graphic works, timed to coincide with the Sargent retrospective on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston through September 26, provides a framework for understanding the development and function of Sargent’s draughtsmanship in the greater context of his artistic career.

Eric Denker, Curator of Prints and Drawings, Corcoran Gallery of Art

Starts Tuesday, Aug 31, 1999
Ends Saturday, Oct 30, 1999
Curator Eric Denker
Organized by Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York University Grey Art Gallery


Exhibition Types: American Art