October 26, 2020

Sargent Portraits in Charcoal

One art exhibit I was really looking forward to visiting this year was the exhibit of portraits in charcoal by John Singer Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. Covid 19 ruined that for me, but I recently purchased the exhibition catalogue. While it is no substitute for seeing the originals, the book is still great to have. Thankfully the beautiful catalogue totally does justice to Sargent's work.

Sargent's highly finished charcoal drawings and quick sketches are just as sumptuous as his oil paintings, which I have seen in person many times. I can only imagine what it must be like to be the owner of one of these original drawings, having it handed down to you from earlier family generations.

Like many exhibition catalogues the print quality is exceptional. Book reproductions of oil paintings can sometimes lose the impact of the originals, as far as brush work details and textures go. You do not really have that problem with reproductions of charcoal drawings, so that makes missing the actual exhibit a bit less painful. 

I own a Dover publication of John Singer Sargent drawings, and just purchased a book of his drawings from another publisher as well, and neither are reproduced in full color - which you would think would not matter since the originals are done with charcoal - but it does matter.

The exhibition catalogue is printed in full color and the detail is superior. Also you get to see the varied shades of paper Sargent used and how that effects the tones and the overall look of each piece. Plus the catalogue shows details of select images, probably enlarged to the same size as his originals (he did most within an 18x24 inch area) so those blown up details are always interesting.Image

Finally, aside from the fantastic images, it was fun to read about each of Sargent's sitters and their families reactions to the finished work. Hard to believe, but some of them were not pleased with the results! It was also interesting to read that Sargent used pieces of bread to lift out areas of tone to create highlights. I really have to try that one.