“Ask me to paint your gates, your fences, your barns, which I should gladly do, but not the human face,” wrote the great portraitist John Singer Sargent in 1907. As legions of admirers clamored for the opportunity to sit for Sargent, the fifty-one-year-old artist famously declared that he would no longer accept commissions. Sargent had grown weary of the rigors of portrait painting, especially the need to please demanding patrons. He preferred to spend his time focusing on his mural work for the Boston Public Library (and, later, at the Museum of Fine Arts) and painting landscapes in oil and watercolor. As a substitute, he offered to capture his patrons’ likenesses—or “mugs,” as Sargent called them—in charcoal sketches, which he could execute in one short sitting instead of the weeks or months required for an oil.
By the time of his death in 1925, Sargent, who was a prolific and precocious draftsman from an early age, had created some 750 charcoal portraits. About fifty of these bravura drawings will be on display this fall in the exhibition John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal at the Morgan Library and Museum. As striking for their technical facility as for the sitters’ biographies, the assortment includes statesmen, artists, actors, writers (with a bit of the Social Register and Burke’s Peerage mixed in) and reveals Sargent’s mastery of the medium. Winston Churchill is here, well before he became prime minster. Lifelong friend Henry James looks rather serious while W. B. Yeats is a youthful, very handsome, poet-aesthete in a bowtie. Beloved actor Ethel Barrymore was sketched at Sargent’s request and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney is shown in Ballets Russes costume. Tender images of friends and family round out the selection and demonstrate Sargent’s uncanny ability to capture a likeness no matter the medium.
The exhibition is co-organized by the National Portrait Gallery, where it will be remounted, with new portraits, next year.
John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal • Morgan Library and Museum, New York • October 4 to January 12, 2020 • themorgan.org
John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal • National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC • February 28, 2020 to May 31, 2020 • npg.si.edu