32 Study of a Male Nude Figure



Title: Study of a Male Nude Figure

Artist/Source: John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925)

Date: circa 1920

Medium: watercolour and pencil on paper

UCL Art Museum #1944

John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925) is renowned today for his portraits of the aristocracy from the late nineteenth century. His seductive painting of a woman in a corseted black dress titled Madame X has become iconic for its scandalous first exhibition at the Paris Salon of 1884. A prolific, and very successful artist in his day, Sargent created over 900 paintings and 2,000 watercolours. He produced a number of drawings of boys or ‘tommies’, so called because they were privates in the British Army. The figure in this watercolour, however, exhibits more grandeur in his awesome stretch. The breadth of his torso suggests a powerful anatomy quite unlike the folded, sinuous curves of Sargent’s tommies. Nonetheless, the male anatomy held particular intrigue for him, a subject little explored in his time.

Sargent called the nude the ‘human form divine’, an appreciation for the form evident in his work. Here the watercolour medium itself has a particular synaesthetic appeal, applied with a smooth and moist touch mimicking that of skin. Like Tonks, however, Sargent evinces a particular concern for the contour.

Sargent is considered to have held particular interests in issues of sexual identity, both male and female. His realist approach to the body and his use of cropping suggests that he may have been influenced by photography. He also took equal interest in the nude in motion, in a way reminiscent of Muybridge’s photography. He claimed to have been inspired by the appreciation of the male form shown by Italian Old Masters, particularly Michelangelo, Titian and Tintoretto. He drew many figure studies yawning and stretching as well as dancing. Art critic Robert Hughes has called Sargent ‘the unrivaled recorder of male power and female beauty in a day that, like ours, paid excessive court to both.’


John Esten, John Singer Sargent: The Male Nudes (1999).

Justin Spring, Paul Cadmus: The Male Nude (Universe: 2000).

Trevor Fairbrother, John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

John Esten, Thomas Eakins: The Absolute Male (2002).

Related works:

John Singer Sargent, Study of a Male Nude Reclining, watercolour and pencil, c.1920 (UCL Art Museum #1945).


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