Sunday, October 13, 2019

Sargent's Charcoal Portraits

The Morgan Library in New York is currently hosting a big show of John Singer Sargent's charcoal portraits. (Link to YouTube)

The exhibition includes over 50 drawings and it will be on view through January 12.

There is also a new book in Richard Ormond's series on complete works of Sargent that focuses entirely on Sargent's charcoal portraits.

"John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal" at the Morgan Library
Book: John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal

Thanks, Chris.


A Colonel of Truth said...

Just incredible, Sargent charcoals.

Roberto Quintana said...

WOW! These are Fantastic!
Charcoal is such a fragile medium, way more fragile than pastels or even chalk. I wonder if he ‘fixed’ his drawings, and if so, what did he use?
There is such a great loss of detail when coating those charcoal particles with a fixative, even w all the modern chemistry and variety of products we have today.
Are you familiar with his process?
When I have worked w charcoal I have had to use a workable fixative, and re-work and re-fix… in order to keep the drawing from blowing away and smudging, even w the slightest handling! -RQ

SummaSummanum said...

@Roberto Quintana

The old fashioned (classical) way of approaching this is to apply the fixative from the reverse side of paper with a brush.

You can consult this short paper:

I much recomend this book treating the craft of charcoal drawing and it's (supprisingly modern) history.

Rich said...

Didn't know he was fed up with the upper class, as stated here. May make sense.

Roberto Quintana said...

Thanx Summa…(JSTOR is a very cool web site!)
Here is the pertinent info:
“Charcoal, by its want of intense blackness, does not go to the lowest notes of chalk, and, therefore, to give it as large a scale as possible, it is desirable that it should be on paper either perfectly white or very nearly so. Pure white papers are cold, but this is remedied to some extent by the fixer, which stains the paper slightly with a warmer tone. Pulverizers have been invented which throw the fixer at the drawing in a jet of very fine spray, as perfumes are diffused in the air; but fixing in this way is seldom satisfactory until the operation has been performed repeatedly on the same drawing, and the pul verizer itself is a very delicate instrument, which requires to be kept in a state of perfect cleanliness, so that its little tubes and orifices may not be clogged with dissolved guin-lac. It is much pleasanter to be entirely independent of these inventions, and to fix the drawing in the old-fashioned way from behind, but when this is done the paper must be stretched on a frame in such a manner as to leave the back of the whole drawing perfectly accessible to the brush. As to the composition of the fixer, it is simply a very weak solution of gum-lac in spirits of wine, the color of pale sherry, and perfectly fluid, so as to enter the pores of the paper very easily.”

JSTOR is a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary source objects. JSTOR helps people discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content through a powerful research and teaching platform, and preserves this content for future generations. JSTOR is part of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit organization that also includes Ithaka S+R and Portico. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

Ps- When working in a public space, or as a quick-fix, I have found that hair-spray works pretty well and, as it is perfumed, it is not quite as offensive as many of the other fixers -RQ

Margo said...

Thank you ever so much James for posting this.

Virginia Fhinn said...

Neat, thanks for posting this, I just watched a lecture by Richard Ormond the other day, about his war time service and the painting "Gassed". At the end of the lecture he mentioned that he was at that time looking for charcoal portraits done by Sargent for this book. It was a great lecture and showed wonderful details of finished works and sketches, here is the link if anyone is interested : hope that works

ThomD said...

Apparently he stopped doing portraits in oil around 1907 saying they took too much time. He continued to paint, but not portraits. From that point on his portraits were limited to charcoal, and he did something like 750.

I find that interesting because some people have pointed to his use of abstraction as a great artistic force in his portraits. It can be in garments, backgrounds or the subjects face. But if he was simply fed up by the work to the point of abandonment, it moves the use of abstraction from purely an artistic preference to a time saving device. It should save time, and that does not colour his reason for using it, but it is interesting.