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.


Andra 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.

Aleš 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...

Aleš-- 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.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Yes, those Freudian slips can prove awkward.

I'll revisit the Flagg monograph; my recollection is that his work included some excellent high points and what were (to my taste) conspicuous soft spots. But to the more interesting question about the relevance of Flagg's personal life: I question whether his art is any more "concrete" than what he has written in words-- both are marks he put on paper. When Flagg wrote, "I have never had any slight interest in homely ladies, no matter how charming and intelligent they are reputed to be. They do not exist for me," well, that too tells me something about his "observational skills." And there seems to have been no difference between what he "said" and what he "did" in this respect-- women were jettisoned or cheated upon in a most unkind way as they approached middle age.

To try to refine my point a little, I generally agree that great art can have morally repugnant content. I disconnect the two issues. However, when people suggest that we should make allowances for bad behavior because of an artist's special gift-- because they are "soulful and interesting" or they are especially sensitive or haunted or tormented-- then the art better be damn good, and I feel it starts becoming appropriate to link art to behavior.

kev ferrara said...


It seems like it would be quite hard for the decaying biomass that once was Mr. Flagg to defend himself in this court case you've begun. Since I hate impromptu show trials, excuse my recess.

Personally I don't believe in saints. I see art as the product of people's best selves. Everybody's worst self is better off forgotten or unknown. There is so much we do not know. Evidence is so scant. Maybe Vermeer was a thief. Maybe Franklin Booth kicked puppies. I personally know many bad things about many great illustrators, dead and alive, which I won't tell. But if you gaze into that crystal ball of suspicion you may divine which ones I speak of, so you can despise them in advance of knowledge. Imagine each illustrator in the pantheon as a target in a shooting gallery of failings, and you with your pop gun of idealism mowing them down one by one until there's almost none. And then you'll have your moral eden, yes indeed. And a nearly empty art gallery to peruse.

Aleš said...

David wrote: "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, they are all fine drawings and there's a lot to learn from them. If I had to judge those two compared to Sargent I'd say that Oberhardt's Wallace Morgan doesn't have the same integrity of facial construction. The tensions among the anatomical parts of the Sargent's face seem more dynamic to me, there is something a bit more vital and organic about the way he composed the face. Also every part and the face as a whole feels more volumetrically solid and compact, there is certain confidence and expertness that emanates from Sargent, like everything came so easy to him. I find Oberhardt's Wallace Morgan more sensual than Calle's Phillips.

As you said, that portrait isn't Sargent's finest hour, it seems to have a certain blankness and lack of spirit underneath the skillful facial construction. Now that I look at Flagg again I don't know why I said that he feels closest to Sargent's drawing in terms of spirit, now I think Flagg is better, his portrait expresses warmth and freshness, there is something uplifting about it. (I hate using "something" so much, but I don't have the knowledge to describe what it is exactly that makes me feel certain way)

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- It seems that we each pick our own battles. Some people (you, for example) can be pretty fearless about passing judgment on the quality of art despite the fact that many people protest that art is totally subjective and that no one is in a position to judge. Other people (me, perhaps) feel that we have to be able to pass some moral judgments, despite your perfectly valid point that "There is so much we do not know." In both art and ethics, there is great peril in seeking "eden" with too much zealousness but in both art and ethics, the failure to draw the line somewhere can be even worse.

Aleš-- I don't disagree. I think Oberhardt did a great job telling us about Morgan's personality with those eyes and that facial expression, but bailed out before constructing the whole head, hence the lack of "integrity" that you describe. And the Flagg may not be too close to this Sargent drawing, but I'd say it is closer to many of Sargent's other (better) charcoal portraits.

kev ferrara said...


The thing about a work of Art is, there it is. There it all is. There is nothing hidden from us in art except by our own perceptual insensitivities, life inexperience, or blocking dogmas. Which is to say, all the qualities that make up a work's Quality, are right there to be appreciated if we have the mind and training to do so.

Similarly, if we can't appreciate how a suspension bridge was smartly and diligently designed to withstand tides, weather, and weight, that doesn't stop it from having the qualities such engineering would provide. I think such points argue for the idea that quality is not subjective, only its appreciation is.

(Note: I'm not exempting myself from accusations of insensitivity or ignorance. I'm a work in progress as much as anybody else. But I submit I try harder than most to get the bottom of these kinds of matters.)