Graphite and wash on laid paper
Framed: 7.7 x 6.5 cm (3 1/16 x 2 9/16 in.); Unframed: 5.5 x 3.8 cm (2 3/16 x 1 1/2 in.)
The Edward B. Greene Collection 1941.568
Sketches helped John Smart work out the particulars of a portrait before commencing the miniature on ivory; they were useful in the event that a duplicate might later be required.
Although it is impossible to say if it was always part of the artist’s process to execute a preparatory sketch prior to painting each miniature, we do know that John Smart retained many hundreds of these sketches. A group of preparatory sketches—of which this portrait is one—descended through the Smirke family after Smart’s daughter Sarah gave a sketchbook containing preparatory portrait studies to her friend Mary Smirke, sister of the celebrated Victorian architect Sydney Smirke. This book was probably broken up around 1877 when it was divided between Sydney’s daughters Mary Jemmett and Mrs. Lange, whose portions were both sold at auction in 1928.
This portrait was assigned the historically colorful but fictitious title of “La Belle Gabrielle” at some point after memory of its true identity had been lost. Giving illustrious titles to portraits of unknown sitters was a popular strategy adopted by dealers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, often applied to miniature portraits and, in particular, to Smart’s sketches of women. The inscription on the paper backing is not in Smart’s hand, and when the paper backing was removed in 1993, no inscriptions were discovered on the back of the drawing itself.
Only the sitter’s head and neck are drawn, and a low-necked dress is faintly suggested. Her head is turned to the right, and her light-colored hair is dressed high, with flat curls against the back of her head. She has brown eyes, and the color of her lips is extremely faded, though the hint of a ruddy complexion remains. Her sagging jaw line and the lines beneath her eyes suggest that this sitter was painted as a mature woman. The background is unpainted. To this date, the finished ivory for which this preparatory sketch was presumably undertaken has not been discovered.
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