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John Singer Sargent's Mugs and Madame X

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) made hundreds of rapidly drawn charcoal sketches of society personalities, drawings he referred to as "mugs." He made these in response to a high demand for his work. Not being able to satisfy all with oil paintings, he satiated his sitters with quick charcoal drawings.

These portraits are mostly of wealthy patrons, although sometimes he would make exceptions. But that is already a much wider pool to draw from than his biggest influence and predecessor Velázquez, who only painted royal subjects.

These "mugs," like a facebook profile picture, should be seen in a social context just as much as an art history context. Sargent not only captured a likeness of the sitter, but created a portrait of a social milieu, the decadent Edwardian high society.

I wish I could know more about some of the individuals in these drawings, and what was going on around them at the moment these drawings were made. For example, the striking portrait Vaslav Nijinsky in costume for the ballet 'Le Pavillon D'Armide' at the Ballet Russes. Nijinsky has an incredibly heartbreaking life story, despite his major talent. Read about him at this link.

Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon
Portrait of Mrs. George Swinton
Portrait of Viola Tree
Portrait of Eleonora Randolph Sears 
Here is a link to some wonderful biographical information and details of Eleonora's sitting with Sargent. In this case, Sargent requested her to to sit for a drawing because of her extraordinary personality.

Portrait of Vaslav Nijinsky

One portrait we do have a sensational back story on is the infamous Madame X. Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, did not commission this portrait. She was pursued by Sargent who wanted to create a masterpiece for the 1884 Paris Salon.
"The model was an American expatriate who married a French banker, and became notorious in Parisian high society for her beauty and rumored infidelities. She wore lavender powder and prided herself on her appearance." (Wikipedia)
Once unveiled, the portrait was met with critical hatred. Gautreau, without lending her name to the piece, was unmistakable with her strong features. The criticism was a combination of revulsion at the painting and revulsion at the perceived vulgarity of the subject. A woman who would sensationalize herself for social promotion, or so it seemed. Gautreau was disappointed and humiliated that the masterpiece she believed herself to be contributing to was such a critical disaster, and that not only the painting but her character were being criticized. Sargent tried to make amends by repainting the shoulder strap of her dress in an upright position, it was originally off the shoulder. This painting can currently be viewed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and is now considered widely to be his greatest achievement!

Madame X (Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau), 1884

And I just had to share this image of the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky!

Vaslav Nijinsky in costume

Subtle Tones from John Ruskin to David Musgrave

 I was really struck by the similarity of these two drawings, made by artists from completely different eras. Both show a very nuanced use of tonal gradation to achieve a realistic effect, capturing the delicate texture of a leaf.

John Ruskin (1819-1900) helped to define the Victorian era as a great thinker and artist of the time. He was a Naturalist, artist, writer and social critic.

David Musgrave (b. 1973) is a contemporary conceptual artist working in London. I wonder if he was influenced by Ruskin? Looks like that is highly probable!

More information about both artists:
- Ruskin
- Musgrave (also some great images here!!)

Can you guess which drawing is by Ruskin and which by Musgrave? (answer below)

* top: Ruskin, bottom: Musgrave

Homework: tonal gradation and facial proportions

In order to fit more drawing time into the next class, please complete the following exercises at home and bring them with you on Monday. This means we can cover tonality and get an introduction to portrait drawing on the same day! Thanks class!

Reminder: Bring a mirror large enough to see your entire face at one time.
Student work: 20 minute portrait drawing 

1) Tonal Gradation
Time to get to know your pencils! H stands for hard (lighter) and B stands for black (darker), and F stands for fine point (used for detail, also a hard pencil). Higher number B means darker still, higher number H means lighter still. This all varies with brand, and most especially, with the touch of the person drawing. Press very hard with an HB (a middle-range grey) and very soft with a B, and what do you know? The HB looks darker! So what I recommend is to test this all out on your own.
- Make a rectangular box, approximately 5 cm x 20 cm.
- Use your darkest (softest B) pencil to make your blackest possible black on one side.
- The other end should remain white.
- Use all your pencils to fill in the gradation in between, making the transitions as smooth at possible.
- You might want to try this a couple more times with different pencil combinations.

2) Facial Proportions
Copy this diagram of facial proportions, measuring and correcting as you go.

  • Middle of the eyes are in the middle of the head.
  • Bottom of the nose is half way between eyes and bottom of chin.
  • Mouth (measured from between lips) is less than half way between bottom of nose and bottom of chin.
  • Head is 5 eyes wide.
Here is another useful measurement for profiles.

Placing the ear in profile. (Betty Edwards)
Human skull for reference!

Another diagram to reference for facial proportions.
Of course every individual has some slight variations in his or her facial proportions and structure, as exhibited so well here by David Hockney. He actually drew these portraits of security guards at an art museum with the aid of a Camera Lucida. 

"Twelve Portraits After Ingres" by David Hockney

And here is everybody using viewfinders during the last class! Speaking of optical devices (David Hockney and Camera Lucida), I just had to share this photo!