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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The prolific John Singer Sargent produced thousands of stunning study pieces for his portrait work, generally in pencil and chalk

Klimt and Michelangelo are two artists who developed their understanding of the human anatomy through constant practice and repetition. Sargent also prepared for his much prized portraits with multiple sketches in order to attain a high standard of work across his career.

Various collections hold his drawings

The Metropolitan Museum in the US holds one of the finest collections of John Singer Sargent drawings, around 400 artworks in total when including their watercolours. It also provides a comprehensive coverage of the different content of his sketchwork.

Most of the pieces were gifted by the artist's daughters - Emily and Francis. Some of the drawings date back to when John was just 13 years old.

Italian architecture, particularly in Venice, would enthuse Sargent, just as it had Turner and countless others. This was one of his most prolific periods of study drawings, capturing the flourishes, angles and beauty of this unique city.

Travelling sketcher

Sargent would extend several visits to Italy to include Sicily and Ravenna in order to study several significant murals in greater detail. These would inspire his work for several commissions back in the United States, such as mural decorations for the Boston Public Library.

Drawing as preparation for oil paintings

The artist's preparation around two major paintings, El Jaleo and Javanese Dancer give us an insight into his common methods of working. For the latter he would produce a series of oil, watercolour and pencil sketches to perfect his capture of the subject. A sketchbook contains endless studies of the dancers' anatomy. El Jaleo however shows bolder lines around a clear angle of light.

One of the secrets to Sargent's productivity is that he would produce multiple works around a single set up. Perhaps he might have a model pose, or plein air setting amongst a landscape - from this he would put together drawings, watercolours and oils. He may even then add to these in his own time back in his studio at a later date.

Polly Barnard John Singer Sargent
Polly Barnard
Miss Elizabeth Williamson John Singer Sargent
Miss Elizabeth Williamson
Two Studies for Soldiers of Gassed John Singer Sargent
Two Studies for Soldiers of Gassed
Portrait of Henry James John Singer Sargent
Portrait of Henry James
Vaslav Nijinsky in Le Pavillon d'Armide John Singer Sargent
Vaslav Nijinsky in Le Pavillon d'Armide
Study for Madame X John Singer Sargent
Study for Madame X
Bartholomy Magagnosco John Singer Sargent
Bartholomy Magagnosco
Engelsburg John Singer Sargent
Deer John Singer Sargent