fbpx
Connect with us

DailyArtMagazine.com – Art History Stories

John Singer Sargent’s Charcoal Portraits at The Morgan Library

Sargent‘s Charcoal Portraits cover
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Gertrude Kingston (detail), ca. 1909, charcoal. By permission of the Provost and Fellows of King’s College, Cambridge, UK. Fitzwilliam Museum.

Museums And Exhibitions

John Singer Sargent’s Charcoal Portraits at The Morgan Library

John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal opened at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York on October 4th. It is the first-ever museum exhibition to focus exclusively on Sargent’s charcoal portrait drawings. It’s a terrific show that made me admire Sargent even more than I did before.

Lady Diana Manners, Sargent charcoal portrait
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Lady Diana Manners, 1914, charcoal. Private Collection. Photography by Christopher Calnan.

Sargent’s Charcoal Portraits

Art lovers know Italian-born American artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) for his gorgeous, large-scale portraits of American and European elites such as Madame X, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, and Lady Agnew of Locknaw. He also painted many beautiful watercolors. Oil portraits made Sargent’s career, and he’s still famous for them today. However, in 1907, he decided that he’d had enough of the demanding job of painting the rich and famous, and he abruptly stopped taking portrait commissions.

Or at least he tried to. Sargent had become a sought-after portrait painter, and potential customers wouldn’t take no for an answer. So, Sargent came up with a solution to satisfy everyone – charcoal portrait drawings. Such drawings were quicker and easier to create; one took only about three hours to complete instead of the thirteen or more hours necessary for an oil portrait. They are smaller and simpler than oil portraits, but still relatively large and full of Sargent’s characteristic vitality. Sargent made over 750 charcoal portraits in his career. Many were commissions, while others were done as gifts to the sitters.

The Exhibition

Sybil Sassoon, Sargent charcoal portrait
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Sybil Sassoon, 1912, charcoal. Private Collection, Photography by Christopher Calnan.

John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal was curated by Sargent expert Richard Ormond, who is also the artist’s grand-nephew. The show includes about fifty works from public and private collections in England and America. They depict men and women from late teens or early twenties through old age. Sitters include aristocrats, artists, writers, performers, politicians, and social luminaries. Most belonged to Sargent’s large social circle, and many were his friends.

Robert Henry Benson, Sargent charcoal portrait
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Robert Henry Benson, 1912, charcoal. Courtesy Mr. Robin Benson. Photography by Christopher Calnan.

Some portraits, like those of Winston Churchill, Henry James, and William Butler Yeats, are immediately recognizable by name or by face. The portrait of American actress Ethel Barrymore is an audience favorite. However, I most enjoyed some of the unfamiliar sitters. My favorite was a lively portrait of composer Ethel Smyth with her mouth open in mid-song. Each Sargent portrait is unique, though impossible to mistake for the work of any other artist. I suspect that every visitor to this exhibition will have no trouble coming up with a few favorites.

The Portraits

Gertrude Kingston, Sargent charcoal portrait
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Gertrude Kingston, ca. 1909, charcoal. By permission of the Provost and Fellows of King’s College, Cambridge, UK. Fitzwilliam Museum.

Sargent’s charcoal portraits are generously sized. They’re smaller than his oil portraits, but they’re certainly not tiny sketches. Most show the sitter’s head and shoulders against a plain background of either bare white paper or dark charcoal. These light and dark backgrounds produce very different effects, and a few darkly-rendered figures on dark backgrounds are particularly spectacular.

Sargent’s charcoal portraits have the same delicate balance of detail and simplification that’s so compelling in his oil paintings. Faces – the most important part of any portrait – are always tightly rendered. Many works highlight fabulous hats, dramatic shawls, and sweeping hairstyles, while the rest of the body and clothing dissolve into the background.

Mary Smyth Hunter, Sargent charcoal portrait
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Mary Smyth Hunter, ca. 1904, charcoal. Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester: Gift of James O. Belden in memory of Evelyn Berry Belden.

Before visiting the exhibition, I wondered what to expect from Sargent’s charcoal portraits. Since he is celebrated for his bold brushwork and gorgeous colors, I was curious about how effective his greyscale portraits would be. I was delighted, but not surprised, to find that everything great about John Singer Sargent seems extra-concentrated in his charcoal drawings. Without color, I found my attention more fully drawn to Sargent’s unique ability to infuse life and personality into every portrait. In fact, I’m starting to think that Sargent might have been at his most brilliant in his charcoal drawings.

Exhibition Details

John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal is currently on view at the Morgan Library and Museum (225 Madison Avenue in New York City). It opened on October 4, 2019 and will run through January 12, 2020. Find out more details on the Morgan’s website.

Alexandra believes that enjoying the art of the past is the closest she can get to time travel, only much safer. When she’s not being an art historian, she can usually be found ice skating and dancing. Visit her at ascholarlyskater.com.

Comments

More in Museums And Exhibitions

  • H, Dog, acrylic on canvas, 1993 H, Dog, acrylic on canvas, 1993

    dailyart

    What I Found in the Museum Of Bad Art

    By

    MOBA, or the Museum Of Bad Art, is replete with almost anything that could be wished for in terms of the good, the bad, the very bad, the hilarious, and of course the ugly. The category of ‘good’ doesn’t really exist here – that much will...

  • Natural Bridge Johnson cover Natural Bridge Johnson cover

    featured

    Virginia Arcadia: Natural Bridge and Why Artists Loved It

    By

    Virginia Arcadia: The Natural Bridge in American Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts explores a natural wonder and its appearance in American art. The exhibition includes more than 60 paintings, prints, drawings, maps, photographs, and decorative arts from the 18th through early 20th centuries....

  • "Refuse to be the Muse!", @BarbieReports. "Refuse to be the Muse!", @BarbieReports.

    21st century

    Art Activist Barbie, When Playful Protests Indicate Gender Inequality in Art

    By

    Art Activist Barbie has been showing up in museums and galleries for over three years, criticizing the male-dominated art world. Holding a lollipop stick, Art Activist Barbie uses small signs to ask big questions in fabulous outfits. That is actually her mantra. But who is she...

  • dailyart

    The Best Museum Instagram Accounts

    By

    We all love to scroll through Instagram for an aesthetically pleasing distraction from the real world. Museums arguably provide some of the most compelling posts, as well as creating their own memes to stay on-trend. This post will show you all the best museum Instagram accounts...

  • dailyart

    Celebrities of the Floating World

    By

    Celebrities of the floating world is the first Romanian exhibition of a private ukiyo-e collection and one of the very few of its kind in the world. In addition, it is the first that all main five themes of Japanese woodblock print, historical/heroes, beautiful women/courtesans, landscape,...

To Top