Friday, February 17, 2017


Let's face it-- when you visit New York you won't always find one of John Singer Sargent's charcoal portraits on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Sometimes they're in storage.

So what's an art lover to do?

Well, you could walk a few blocks to the Society of Illustrators to see another first rate collection of charcoal portraits.  Over the 115 year history of the Society, each president has been drawn by a prominent illustrator of the day.   These remarkable drawings now line the walls for any visitor to see. Here are some that particularly struck my fancy:

Albert Sterner by William Oberhardt

Charlie Williams by James Montgomery Flagg

Charles Dana Gibson by William Oberhardt

Arthur Keller by George Brehm

Wallace Morgan by William Oberhardt

Howard Munce by Austin Briggs
Albert Beck Wenzell by Adolf Treidler 

Barye Phillips by Paul Calle

Unlike Sargent's society portraits of business moguls and dowagers who just wanted to be flattered, the portraits on the walls at the Society were pictures of working artists, done by working artists, to be displayed in front of a highly judgmental audience of working artists.  That had to change the dynamics of the art dramatically.  I'm sure each of these portrait artists wanted to show off in front of their peers.

Many of these names went on to become legends in the field of illustration.

A 1943 photo of past presidents along with the members who drew them. Note Martha Sawyers in the front row, the only woman in the room.  No African American or Asians whatsoever.

It's also interesting to note how the styles of the portraits changed over the years.  The great illustrator William Oberhardt would recoil at the thought of using a photograph for reference, but it's clear from the hard edged illustration of Paul Calle that times changed.

I'll be showing more of these drawings in future posts.


Annie C Curtis said...

That Charlie Williams one is superb!

Anonymous said...

I learned about Oberhardt from this blog years ago. He's wonderful. Is there a book on him?


Click Here said...

Thank you for sharing this. i really need this for my research.

chris bennett said...

It was interesting to see which my favourites were out of those you have kindly shared: Flagg and Austin Briggs. It is curious, because although they are less fully rendered I think they possess a density the others lack.

David Apatoff said...

Annie C. Curtis-- Thanks, I agree. I'm not always a big fan of Flagg'a portraits, but I think he genuinely cared about this one.

JSL-- There should be a book about Oberhardt. During his lifetime he was famous for his charcoal portraits; he did the first cover of Time Magazine. You can see a nice selection of his work at the Society of Illustrators, but otherwise it's hard to come by.

Chris Bennett-- I agree, they're both quite nice. Remember, Briggs came to that "less fully rendered" state by passing through a meticulous, highly realistic oil painting phase. I think that helped him to achieve that weight and density in what might otherwise by regarded as a quick sketch.

lena said...

Those illustrations look nice.

AleŇ° said...

I like Flagg too, to me he feels closest to Sargent's drawing in terms of life and fluency. And I like Treidler's painterly technique, is that a charcoal wash?

Robert Cook said...

Of these, I like Austin Briggs' drawing best, followed by Calle's drawing in second place, two drawings which are polar opposites of one another.

kev ferrara said...

Strange to look at Oberhardt in the context of Flagg and Briggs. I would have thought big O would have more affinity for Sargent, but it turns out the opposite is true. Flagg and Briggs are better trained in form specifically, and artfulness generally.

David Apatoff said...

AleŇ°-- I may be speaking heresy, but I think all of the portraits in this post have no trouble sharing the page with the Sargent portrait I've included for comparison. (Admittedly not Sargent's finest hour). Oberhardt's Wallace Morgan could be better staged, and the intensity of Calle's Phillips seems a little unrelenting (like, he might have put down the 9B pencil for a few minutes and given harder leads a chance). But they all impress me as smart, sensitive, knowledgeable captures of their subjects. I agree with you, the Flagg does have life and fluency-- it's funny, I'm less enamored with Flagg's ink drawings where I think there is unnecessary repetition in his brush strokes, but this medium has more sensitive expressive power than ink, so you see that those repetitive lines have varying weights and intensity.

Robert Cook-- A very surprising contrast indeed! I agree, they are polar opposites. But I suppose that when you stroll through a garden you're entitled to appreciate both the roses and the daisies for different attributes.

Kev Ferrara-- I think that Oberhardt of Sterner is a real jewel, especially in person. Looking at it up close, I'd say it's a stronger "Sargent" than the Sargent I've included here. One can see how Oberhardt earned the reputation that he enjoyed. The other two Oberhardts are lesser examples but I couldn't resist that Charles Dana Gibson profile.

When it comes to the differences in "form" and "artfulness," do you think part of the explanation may be that Sargent, Briggs and Flagg dealt with a diverse array of challenges, while Oberhardt was a one trick pony dealing only in charcoal portraits?

kev ferrara said...


If you've seen Oberhardt's earliest work, you'd know he wasn't cut out to be a fiction illustrator. Like Neysa McMein, he smartly stuck to his lone competence with faces and burnished it by the hour. So his restricted set of challenges were his best bet for success. So, in my view, it wasn't his lack of diversity that held him back, it was artistic shackles that limited his diversity.

Flagg was an extraordinary talent and beautifully trained. His oil paintings, most of them studies, in my view, are masterful, even when simple. What he does with his pen or charcoal work comes out of his mastery of paint. And it is his ability to deftly express structure and have his structure express emotion and character that knocks me out. He's like the Russian academics, but with a blithe poetic spirit. Briggs, with line design and sensitivity alone, is also expressing a great deal of structural understanding with quite minimal means. I don't think Briggs was a great painter, but he certainly learned painterly form, and abstracting it down to line as he does here is the product of a ton of hours at the drawing board and a whole lot of artistic intelligence.

I agree that, among all the drop dead fantastic Sargent charcoal portraits I've seen, you've managed to find the least impressive one.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- There are a number of illustrators-- some of them quite remarkable-- who've specialized in the human head. I'm not a big fan of Neysa McMein, but Boris Chaliapin and other cover artists for Time Magazine have found extraordinary range with portraits. Oberhardt did the very first Time cover, and-- I think-- some really nice charcoal portraits along the way.

I of course share your high regard for Sargent. I note that the Metropolitan Museum recently had a splendid exhibition of his portraits of artists, writers and other Bohemian friends. Sargent said he preferred these portraits to his society portraits because they gave Sargent more freedom for artistic exploration. Artists were apparently more open minded and judged their portraits by different criteria than socialites. I think that applies to the portraits at the Society if Illustrators; all of those illustrators had been assigned to do flattering portraits of movie stars and politicians for magazines, but these sketches were done for an audience of illustrator peers.

As for Flagg, I try not to let the fact that he was an obnoxious, sometimes odious, person interfere with my judgment of his work. He was smug, arrogant, rude, a heartless philanderer and a racist. He often expressed a shallow attitude toward beauty. He suffered a sour old age because, like Raleigh and some other trendy illustrators, he assumed he would be in vogue forever so he was caught flat footed when the market shifted. ( "As far back as I can remember, I have been in the limelight; now I'd rather be dead than be passed by, ignored.") None of that means he was a bad artist. I like some of his watercolors, but many of them seem carelessly loose to me. I like the brashness of his ink work, but I would say economy of line was not one of his virtues. I know that you have high standards. Can you send me to more of his work that causes you to conclude he was an extraordinary talent and beautifully trained?

kev ferrara said...

"The Society if Illustrators" is an interesting slip!

Regarding Flagg, the monograph is all the evidence needed to see his training and expertise. If it is sufficient for you, it is sufficient for you. If not, not.

What we think we know of his personal life is only what we think we know of his personal life. His art, on the otherhand, is concrete evidence of a soulful and interesting man with acute observational skills and a rapier wit. Perhaps he was also a bitter and disappointed fellow at war with himself. Perhaps he was raised to be a bigot, as most other people were then, including your and my ancestors, no doubt. There are many complex people in this world, sensitive and insensitive at once, enlightened and ignorant at once. In the overall, I tend to look more at what people do, than what they say. As the concrete commitment of a work is the far more permanent statement. Art is the opposite of hearsay.