Saturday, March 22, 2008


William Oberhardt (1882 -1958) was like a 20th century version of Hans Holbein the Younger. Just like Holbein, Oberhardt had an astonishing gift for rendering the human head. "Heads are my preoccupation," he said. "To me the world is full of heads." Both Holbein and Oberhardt were summoned to draw the most famous people of their day. Holbein drew portraits for the court of Henry VIII while Oberhardt drew portraits for Time magazine.

Cover of the first issue of Time magazine, by Oberhardt

Portrait by Holbein

Both artists could paint, but both found their highest expression in the medium of charcoal drawing, which enabled them to display great freedom and sensitivity.

Oberhardt was a very traditional, almost old fashioned artist. He was appalled at his fellow illustrators who used photographs, emphasizing that an artist's job was not to "copy form" but to "strive for interpretation of personality through form."

He advised young artists:

Avoid haste, and don't take pride in hectic activity...Technique evolves gradually. It is the blossoming forth of years of intelligent study, not surface imitation of accepted mannerisms or formulas. Do not waste time on cleverness which might develop into mere facility.
Despite his traditional approach, you can find great, almost abstract designs in Oberhardt's portraits. Once he gets beyond the subtle nuances of the face, he allows himself to go wild with bold surrounding marks that play an important role completing the design:

In discussing "the distribution of blacks in the background," Oberhardt the traditionalist sounded surprisingly modern: "I follow only my feeling of harmony."


Blogger Chuck Pyle said...

JOY! At last, a selection of Oberhardts! What a phenomenally talented portrait painter with charcoal he was and too underappreciated, as in nearly forgotten, today. Find more! These are wonderful.

3/22/2008 4:02 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Chuck, I'm so glad you share my esteem for Oberhardt. I normally try to show examples taken from original art, but it seems almost impossible to find Oberhardt's originals anymore. If you happen to get to the Society of Illustrators in NY, you can see some of his drawings in person and they'll just knock you out.

3/22/2008 10:53 PM  
Blogger Ramon said...

WOW. Thank you for posting this David, I can always find inspiration in your blog! I just finished a portrait a few minutes ago, and looking at these makes me want to try even harder next time. The comparison with Holbein is interesting too, the quiet power and clarity of his works caused Nicolai Fechin to study his work obsessively. Thanks again for a great post!


3/23/2008 1:25 AM  
Blogger Chuck Pyle said...

David, Yes, visit the SI, and rub elbows with the ghosts of the greats, and the current greats trying hard not to become ghosts, yet. The art collection is just amazing. I too have searched under rocks and over the net for Oberhardt and come up empty handed. It is frustrating. They have a great video at the SI of him doing a portrait, setting his model up with a sort of box around him to control extraneous light sources and a source light. I had a little hand in getting the tape semi restored and converted to CD. Call them, it is little known and seldom seen. Also demo by Cornwell, Brownie, and several others.

3/23/2008 1:48 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Ramon, and good luck with those portraits!

Chuck, I went back to the SI website and could find no reference to your CD. Is it for sale? I imagine there would be a number of people interested, starting with me. As for Oberhardt images, the best source I have found is Studio magazine, which published clusters of his portraits every once in a while. And as you probably know, the book Forty Illustrators and How They Work has a great chapter on Oberhardt, showing him at work.

3/23/2008 10:44 AM  
Blogger Chuck Pyle said...

Terry Brown lent us the old tapes to digitally transfer and salvage. Steven Kloepfer and I arranged to have them consolidated and restored ( as best possible). You'll have to email the new SI director as it part of their archive. Truly amazing, and frustrating as the original film is tied up in the Reilly estate. What is visible implies that the originals, some with sound, are true sources of great potential learning and art history.

3/23/2008 1:13 PM  
Blogger Jack Ruttan said...

It's interesting how the Dutch and Flemish painters I saw in Amsterdam Rjiiksmuseum (spelling?) often had that same hard light, detail and twinkle in their portraits. Of course, it's easy to overdo, and make kitschy.

National styles of art are very interesting. Spanish vs. French, Italian, etc.

3/23/2008 1:51 PM  
Blogger Jack Ruttan said...

I guess since Holbein was German, it makes more sense to talk in terms of a North/South thing. I love Italian lighting, and see it in American painters such as Cole, and that school, but you don't find too much of it in Canada, except on hazy summer days.

3/23/2008 1:54 PM  
Anonymous mella said...


3/24/2008 9:09 AM  
Anonymous Ben said...

Thanks for the posting of Rose O'neil's work. I never would have seen her great personal work otherwise. I have followed your blog for a while now and just want to say if you ever want to curate an exhibtion or would ever be interested in doing a talk, I and some others I know would be very interested.

3/25/2008 4:10 AM  
Blogger chris miller said...

Thankyou for showing these two artists -- and pointing out the similarities, but would you care to expound on how you think the drawings of Holbein and Oberhardt are different ?

They feel quite different to me - but I don't know why.

3/25/2008 11:17 AM  
Blogger Steve Ballmer said...

Excellent work!

3/25/2008 9:18 PM  
Blogger James Gurney said...

Your post made me get my copy of "40 Illustrators and How They Work" off the shelf again. It's amazing to think of Oberhardt getting such notables as Taft, Harding, and Edison to sit for him.

His economy of means reminds me of Sargent's late charcoal portraits, after Sargent had given up oil portraits. Obie echoed Sargent when he said: "The only thing I don't like about drawing heads is that I can't always tell the truth about my sitters: they must be portrayed in a favorable light."

3/25/2008 9:41 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, ben. If someone wanted me to "curate an exhibition or give a talk," I would first faint from shock but after I recovered I would be interested.

Chris, I agree that Holbein and Oberhardt had some real differences. Both had exquisite sensitivity and perceptivity in rendering the human head, but Oberhardt was clearly a product of the 20th century and allowed himself to "go wild" with those backgrounds and sweeping expressive lines. Holbein had all the teutonic restraint and rigor that you would expect from a 16th century German artist. Even the most traditional, old fashioned 20th century artist couldn't begin to compare with their sublimation. Also, many of Holbein's drawings were preparatory to a painting (although today his drawings are as highly respected as his paintings).

3/26/2008 5:25 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Steve Ballmer (although you are obviously not really Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft. I've met Steve Ballmer and he does not hang out at blogger).

As for James Gurney, if you are THE James Gurney then I am deeply flattered that you have stopped by. I highly respect what you have accomplished with your books, and as a reader of your excellent web site, I know that you really know what you're talking about. If you are reading this blog, I am going to have to start being careful about what I say.

3/26/2008 5:36 AM  
Blogger Chuck Pyle said...

Yes, that is the real James Gurney!

3/26/2008 10:50 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

I also trust that Chuck Pyle is THE Chuck Pyle, a good friend who has been extremely generous, in sending me scans of great S.F. illustrators. Thanks Chuck.

David, looking at this series of posts on Oberhardt's portraits, gives me great satisfaction. What a superb draftsman, with great flair. Jim Gurney is right on target, comparing him with Sargent. If we covered the signatures of Oberhardt and Sargent, and mixed them all together, it would be difficult to tell them apart. Old fashioned or not, these drawings will continue being great art, now and into the future.

Thanks for reminding us that great traditional art, past or present, never looses its continued impact.

Tom Watson

4/17/2008 12:26 AM  
Blogger Heather Woodburn said...

This is fantastic! William Oberhardt is/was my grandfather, and I have always been amazed at how little is on the web about him. I was raised surrounded with his work...a true legacy. My mother has 100s of his original portraits, and as he most often retained the rights and originals, we have been debating what direction to go with all of them. The Smithsonian wanted a few of them, however, there is such a range - from presidents, to navy men, to studies in faces, to just-for-fun sketches, to advertisements, and famous people of the day....that is overwhelming. Shortly before he died, he was writing a book. The rough draft and notes sadly never made it farther. What is most amazing, is that these people sought him. He did not pursue them. And yet he felt his most lasting work, was his busts of heads...they too sit in my mom's house. Nice blog. He is so worth it...although I am thoroughly biased. Any thoughts on what direction to go for my mom? My house has only so much wall space...

10/01/2009 6:13 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Heather, please write me at I would love to talk with you about this.

10/01/2009 11:12 PM  
Blogger Kalinides said...

Andrew Loomis in his book:"Drawing the Head and Hands", recommends to study and collect Oberhardt works as a good example for students in need of good mastery on portrait... Now looking Oberhardt's drawings, I can see how Loomis works got influenced by him...

2/19/2010 2:36 PM  
Blogger S√≥niaPestana said...

perfect! congrats!

11/22/2011 9:40 AM  

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