In his journal, French painter Paul Gauguin fantasized about what he would say to a critic who asked to view his drawings: “My drawings! Never! They are my letters, my secrets.” Artist sketches are often private acts, never meant to be viewed alongside the finished work. But when we do get a glimpse, these studies give a window into the creative process and trace how artists—from Leonardo da Vinci to Kara Walker—have found inspiration, only to reshape it before putting a final work out into the world.
While many aspects of the Mona Lisa—arguably the most famous artwork in art history—remains shrouded in mystery, a chalk drawing made four years earlier provides a possible entry point into this iconic portrait. When traveling from Milan to Venice in 1499, da Vinci visited d’Este—a political figure and patron of the Renaissance—in Mantua, drawing her portrait and promising to paint her at a later date. In the sketch, d’Este sits in a squarely-cut dress with her hands crossed one over the other, anticipating the costume and gesture of the Mona Lisa.
Peter Paul Rubens, Lion (ca. 1612-13) and Daniel in the Lions’ Den (ca. 1614-16)
While Rubens was certainly not the only Old Master to depict the Biblical story of Daniel in the lion’s den, his version stands apart for its highly accurate rendering of North African lions, a species now extinct in the wild. As a court painter, Rubens had the rare opportunity to sketch these creatures, which were kept at the Royal Menagerie in Brussels. If a later anecdote is to be believed, Rubens went even further, having a lion brought to his studio in Antwerp.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Sketch for Madame Moitessier and Madame Moitessier (1851)
“Cursed portraits!” wrote Ingres, frustrated about an upcoming commission to paint the daughter of a civil servant, Madame Moitessier. “[Portraits] always prevent me from undertaking important things I cannot do any faster, for a portrait is such a difficult thing.” Though Ingres initially refused to paint Madame Moitessier, hoping to focus his energies on history painting, the artist changed his mind when he saw her in person, and spent the next 12 years working on two portraits of the young mother. In dozens of preparatory sketches, the artist agonized over the sitter’s dress, jewelry, and pose in his attempt to do justice to her natural beauty.
Georges Seurat, Study for “La Grande Jatte” (1884-85) and A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884 (1884-86)
Seurat created nearly 60 preparatory sketches for A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, the artist’s monumental painting of a leisure scene in a suburban park. Seurat visited the site over the course of six months, studying the setting en plein air at different times of the day, when it was both empty and full of people. This tiny study, which examines the central section of the final painting, displays the artist’s experiments with horizontal and diagonal brushstrokes, which he would later reject in favor of his now-signature Pointillist technique.
Pablo Picasso, Les femmes d’Alger (1955) and Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) (1955)
In May 2015, Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) sold for $179.4 million, making it the most expensive work ever to sell at auction. The painting is the last in a series of 15 canvases (labeled “A” through “O”) inspired by the French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (1834). Picasso began painting the scene after the death of his friend and artistic rival Henri Matisse, whose depictions of reclining women had also been influenced by Delacroix. Version “E,” housed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is one of Picasso’s most abstract takes on the image, featuring three women—instead of the four in the final version—lounging in a tiled room.
Judy Chicago, Virginia Woolf (1976) and The Dinner Party (1979)
Chicago’s The Dinner Party features an expansive triangular dinner table, 48 feet long on each side, set for 39 legendary women—from Ishtar to Emily Dickinson—often overlooked in the history of Western civilization. This study of writer Virginia Woolf’s place setting includes a sketch of the blooming ceramic flower with page-like petals meant to symbolize the fertility of Woolf’s creative expression. It also features a beam of light, referencing Woolf’s pioneering 1927 work To the Lighthouse, along with Chicago’s notes on Woolf’s literary legacy, embellished with imaginary anecdotes from Woolf’s life (“Slowly, deliberately, Virginia put on her hat and coat”). These multimedia studies showcase the research, craft, and detail that went into the 39 place settings, each of which stand as a vivid portrait of the women they portrayed.
Frank Gehry, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, design sketch of the riverfront elevation, Bilbao, Spain (1991) and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (1997)
Gehry is known for a deconstructed style that involves breaking apart and tearing open the rectangular and stacked forms of more traditional architecture, an approach that culminated in what is considered by some to be the most important work of architecture built since 1980, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. An outlier among architects today, Gehry relies on hand drawing—rather than sophisticated software—to render his ideas. In Gehry’s free-form drawing of the Bilbao museum, we can see how he first imagined the structure. The inspiration for its radical titanium double curves and jutting triangles? Fish. “I realized that [fish] were architectural,” Gehry noted, “conveying motion even when they were not moving.”
Kara Walker, Sphinx Study (2014), Untitled (2013-14), and “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” (2014)
This monumental sphinx, coated in over 30 tons of crystalline sugar, was the centerpiece of Walker’s “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” (2014), her takeover of Brooklyn’s abandoned Domino Sugar factory and one of the most thought-provoking artworks of the 2000s. The 75-foot-long, 35-foot-tall sphinx was a monument to sugar, a substance so precious that it was used to justify the human slave trade in the 17th through 19th centuries. Walker’s charcoal study of the sphinx shows how the artist agonized over the figure’s feminine shape, which draws on a caricature of black female bodies. Speaking about a similar study for the final Sphinx, Walker remarked, “[My sketch] came to embody something I would never want to see, something that was about slavery and industry and sugar and fat and wastelessness.”
—Sarah Gottesman and Olivia-Jené Fagon