Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Ernest Henry Schelling, Drawing by John Singer Sargent (1912)

We continue our brief look at drawings by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) with this terrific drawing of Ernest Henry Schelling (1876-1939).  I am enjoying these drawings so much that perhaps we will come back to them after the holidays.

Schelling was an American pianist, composer and conductor.  He was principal conduct of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 1935 to 1937, and was also a composer of note.  He wrote for the piano, orchestra and chamber ensembles, but most of his work is now forgotten.  His major success was a symphonic poem, Victory Ball, based on the anti-war poem by Alfred Noyes, which was a success in early electrical recordings, recorded by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  He was also the first conductor of the Young People’s Concerts of the New York Philharmonic, a tradition most famously carried on by Leonard Bernstein.

Schelling was married twice; he married Lucie Howe Draper in 1905, and remained with her till her death in 1938.  In August, 1939, he married his second wife, Helen Huntington Marshall, when he was 63 and she was 21.  A member of the venerable Astor family, Marshall and Schelling would remain together only four months: he would die of a brain embolism in December 1939.  Marshall was at his bedside at his death.

There are many things to love about this drawing.  First, look at how Sargent uses the paper itself as a drawing tool.  The paper has a high rag content, giving it more “tooth.”  This allows the paper to capture more of the charcoal dust.  (My former teacher, artist Ephraim Rubenstein, once told me that drawing in charcoal was “rearranging dust.”)  The charcoal also has a harder time of reaching the deeper ridges of the paper, which gives some charcoal drawings a luminescent quality.

If you look really closely, you can also see the paper-maker’s monogram (Michaellet) to the left of Schelling’s head.

Now, look at Schelling’s hairline, right over the bridge of his nose.  Sargent captures the flow and direction of his hair with a few very bold and very dark lines, the rest is just a dark mass (probably rubbed in with the artist’s finger), and lighter highlights were created by using an eraser.  On the right side of the picture, Sargent suggests Schelling’s hair against the dark background by simply applying the charcoal more lightly – there is no “hard” line to separate the figure from the background.  Simple, elegant and effective.

Look at Schelling’s jawline going down the left side of the canvas.  You can actually see one or two initial lines Sargent made before deciding on his final line; he also offsets the very hard line of Schelling’s chin by erasing the line of his head (probably by using his thumb – the mark looks about thumb-size).

Schelling’s mustache is more suggested than rendered.  If you look closely, you’ll see that it is a swatch of dark charcoal with a few outgoing directional lines to make it flow. 

Sargent makes the eyes limpid and alive by applying the eraser to pupil to create a sense of reflected light.  He also suggests depth and delineates the eye sockets at the same time with a single, strong line over each eyelid. 

He also manages to create Schelling’s costume with a few unfussy lines (notice how one shoulder is almost invisible). 

This is a little master’s class in how it’s done.  Anyone interested in drawing – as artist or aesthete – can learn much from a close examination of the work of John Singer Sargent.

A special Thanksgiving message tomorrow!

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