John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) was one of the greatest portrait artists of his time. While he is best known for his powerful paintings, he largely ceased painting portraits in 1907 and turned instead to charcoal drawings to satisfy portrait commissions.

The Morgan Library & Museum presented a major exhibition of his beautiful portraits of beautiful people, in charcoal.

November 10th, 2019

Joseph Cornell Illuminated

Hans Namuth

Joseph Cornell in His Backyard, Utopia Parkway, New York, 1969

”It kills me, it’s so good. Let’s pretend I took this, okay?… I used to go to Cornell’s house once a week for I don’t know how long. He would make tea on his ancient, Depression-era stove. He’d turn the gas on, and the flames shot up. He talked a lot, gesturing, in this very fluffy angora sweater he wore. And I’m thinking, I should keep the camera ready in case he goes up. A Flaming Cornell: that’d be amazing! Unfortunately, he never caught on fire. But this portrait is going to upstage the whole exhibit – I may have to set it on fire.” – Duane Michals

From ”Illusions of the Photographer”, an exhibition of the art of Duane Michals, which included this photograph of Joseph Cornell by Hans Namuth and, as far as I was concerned, upstage the whole exhibit, it did.

The Morgan Library

November 10th, 2019

By All Means: Time travel @ The Morgan

Travelling in time and space in just a few steps, from gallery to gallery, at The Morgan; when three fantastic exhibitions ran simultaneously through May 2019.

By any means: Contemporary drawings from The Morgan

Stephen Vitiello (American, b. 1964)
Speaker Drawing (22.06), 2006 – Pigment and spray fixative

This work is part of a series in which Vitiello explored the relationship between sound – his primary medium – and drawing. He placed pigment in a speaker that was embedded in a table, laying a sheet of paper on top. Vibrations from a synthesizer’s low-frequency oscillator moved the pigment from the speaker to the paper, creating an image that contrasted in its minimalism with the density of the aural event.

Sol LeWitt (American, 1928-2007)
Untitled (folded paper drawing), 1971

John Cage (American, 1912-1992)
Where R = Ryoanji (2R)/4-6/83, 1983
Graphite pencil

Cage often relied on chance to determine the forms of his works. The present sheet belongs to a series inspired by the Zen rock garden of the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, in which fifteen rocks are carefully arranged. The selection of stones, the number of tracings (here 30, as denoted by 2R, where R is equivalent to 15, the number of stones at the temple), their placement, and the number of pencils of different softness that he used (4) were determined by the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination manual, by way of a computer simulation developed by Bell Labs in New York.

Marsha Cottrell (American, b. 1964)
Old Museum (Interior_7), 2015
Laser toner

Although Cottrell uses a computer to make her work, she does not use a computer programme to determine composition but instead passes Japanese paper through a printer numerous times, each time changing or rearranging the shapes on the screen to generate dense, layered images.

Invention and Design: Early Italian Drawings

After Girolamo Mocetto (ca. 1458-after 1531)
Metamorphosis of the Nymph Amymone, ca. 1500
Brush and brown, green-brown, and blue wash, pen and green-brown ink, and white opaque watercolour, over black chalk, on paper

Vittore Carpaccio (1460/66-1525/26)
Head of a Young Man, in Profile to the Right, 1490-1500
Black chalk, brown wash, and white opaque watercolour, on blue paper

Antonio Allegri, known as Correggio (ca. 1489-1534)
Head of a Woman Crying Out, ca. 1509-11
Charcoal and black and white chalk, on two pieces of light brown paper joined vertically

Timoteo Viti (1469-1523)
Head of a Woman in Profile to the Right, ca. 1515
Black and white chalk, on two pieces of paper joined vertically; incised with stylus

Bartolomeo Cincani, known as Bartolomeo Montagna (1447/50-1523)
Nude Man Standing Beside a High Pedestal, ca. 1515
Brush and black ink and brown wash, heightened with white opaque watercolour, over traces of black chalk, on blue paper faded to brown

Attributed to Francesco Bonsignori (1455/60-1519)
Head of a Man Wearing a Cap, in Profile to the Left, ca. 1490-1500
Red, black, and white chalk

Lorenzo di Credi (ca. 1456-1536)
Head of a Young Man, Turned to the Left, Looking Downward, ca. 1490
Metalpoint, with white opaque watercolour, on pink prepared paper

Giovanni Agostino da Lodi (active ca. 1467-ca. 1524)
Head of a Bearded Man in Profile to the Right and Head of a Youth Facing Left, ca. 1500
Red chalk

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth

J.R.R. Tolkien
The Tree of Amalion, [?1940s] – Coloured pencil, watercolour, silver paint, black in on grey paper
MS. Tolkien Drawings 88, fol. 1

”He was the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees. He used to spend a long time on a single leaf, trying to catch its shape, and its sheen, and the glistening of dewdrops on its edges. Yet he wanted to paint a whole tree, with all of its leaves in the same style, and all of them different.”

This extract from Tolkien’s allegorical short story, ”Leaf by Niggle”, is a poignant expression of his own creative struggle as he sought to bring his works, both literary and academic, to completion. The story was written in the early 1940s as he worked fitfully on The Lord of the Rings, his Elvish languages and his wider legendarium, all of which seemed very far from completion. His perfectionism often resulted in numerous revisions and rewritings, whilst his interest in the minutiae led him down interesting but distracting side roads.

The only snapshot I could steal; so long were the lines, the guards had to usher Tolkien’s devotees, or the gallery would burst from overcrowding!

The Morgan Library

March 9th, 2019

It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200

To commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein – originally published on 1 January 1818, the Morgan curated an art exhibition with movie memorabilia, film posters, comic books, publicity stills, aiming to explain how Frankenstein caught the popular imagination in the course of two hundred years.

Richard Rothwell (1800-1868)
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1831
Oil on canvas

This is how the world remembers Mary Shelley: a handsome widow at the height of her fame. Percy Bysshe Shelley had drowned in 1822 when a sudden storm overturned his boat, and she returned  penniless to London with their only surviving child. P.B. Shelley’s income had died with him, and his father, Sir Timothy, loathed his son and daughter-in-law and forbade her to publish under the Shelley name. Nonetheless she wrote, productively, as ”the author of Frankenstein.” Eventually she returned to society, giving modest parties where the Irish painter  Richard Rothwell, the painter of this portrait, was a guest.

The pressbook for the Bride of Frankenstein, a collection of photographs and promotional materials sent to journalists, depicts an imperious Mary Shelley whose glance projects power and knowledge. It also reflects her novel, in which the monster does demand a mate. In James Whale’s film, however, the idea of  a bride originates with a new character, Dr. Septimus Pretorius, Henry Frankenstein’s former university teacher and a paragon of evil. He has come to induce Frankenstein to collaborate with him, in the scene ending with Pretorius’ toast on gin, ”my only weakness,” to ”a new world of  gods and monsters!”

The model for Robert De Niro’s makeup is twisted in pain that might make one turn away. It was fabricated by Daniel Parker, who earned an Academy Award nomination for this makeup concept

Frankenstein (1994), directed by Kenneth Branagh
Starring Robert De Niro, Kenneth Branagh, Helena Bonham Carter

Colour offset lithograph poster for the ”Bride of the Monster”, 1956

Roman Freulich (1898-1974)
Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935

In the novel, Victor Frankenstein destroys the bride before she is vivified. In the 1935 sequel to Frankenstein, she is given little screen time. She is brought out just long enough to be introduced, to spurn the other monster – screaming so hard at him that Lanchester’s vocal cords were damaged for months – and to be returned to death when the monster brings down the tower.

Roman Freulich (1898-1974)
Jack Pierce devising makeup for Boris Karloff
in The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935

Boris Karloff, born William Henry Pratt, was a handsome man. Here, Pierce is at work making him ugly. The creature’s forehead is clamped where his transplanted brain has been popped in. Karloff’s head  was built up with layers of collodion and cheesecloth. This was covered with blue-green greasepaint, which photographed a deathly gray. Boris Karloff removed a bridge from the side of his mouth and sucked his cheek in. Finally, because his eyes were to lively, Karloff said, ”too understanding where dumb bewilderment was so essential,” Pierce added wax to his eyelids, making  them ”heavy, half-seeing”.

Prince Hoare (1755-1834)
Acrobats, 1779
Pen and ink, brown ink and wash over pen and black ink on laid paper

Prince Hoare may have sketched this lively group of acrobats when he was studying art in Rome with Fuseli and James Northcote. His career was unsuccessful, and he stopped exhibiting in 1785, remaking himself as a playwright. Hoare was a longtime friend of Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin,  whom Northcote painted.

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)
The Nigthmare, 1781
Oil on canvas

In this, the most famous of Gothic paintings, a sleeping woman is beset by a nightmare – defined by Samuel Johnson as ”a morbid oppression in the night, resembling thee pressure of weight upon the breast” – here embodied as a goblin with cat’s eyes. The mare at the window is both comical and frightening. The Swiss immigrant artist Fuseli was the first many Mary Shelley’s  mother, the writer Mary Wollstonecraft, loved, and both mother and daughter would have known this painting.

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)
The Three Witches (or The Weird Sisters), ca. 1782
Oil on canvas

Fuseli was not above humour in his paintings. Here, the second of the three witches  from Macbeth is the likeness of Fuseli’s old friend and painting master, John Jakob Bodmer.  Hugely ambitious, Fuseli was celebrated not just for his visionary paintings but for his work in the lucrative market for literary scenes, and he became known as ”Shakespeare’s painter”. This is the earliest of three versions of this work, depicting the witches at the moment of their conversation with Banquo.

Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)
The Covent Garden Night Mare
Etching on wove paper, hand-coloured

The late eighteenth century was the great era of the satiric print in Britain; audiences loved the savage pleasures of their political attacks. Here, Rowlandson coopted Fuseli’s Nightmare, swapping the lissome sleeping woman for the roly-poly leader of the Whig opposition, Charles James Fox, who had just lost power in the 1784 election.

James Gillray (1756-1815)
Wierd-Sisters, Ministers of Darkness, Minions of the Moon
Etching and aquatint, hand-coloured

Gillray turned to Fuseli’s Shakespeare paintings as models six times. Wierd-Sisters, an ”attempt in the caricatura-sublime” modeled on Fuseli’s Three Witches, was seen as Gillray’s masterpiece. (Wierd is a contemporary alternative  spelling).

Three  witches are the three most powerful politicians at the time – William Pitt, Lord Thurlow and Lord Dundas – who were joined in an unstable government.

The Morgan Library & Museum

January 04th, 2019

Wayne Thiebaut, Draftsman

Best known for his luscious paintings of pies and ice-cream cones, California artist Wayne Thiebaud (born 1920) has been an avid and prolific draftsman since he began his career as an illustrator and cartoonist. Featuring subjects that range from deli counters and isolated figures to dramatic views of San Francisco’s plunging streets, Thiebaud’s drawings invariably endow the most banal, everyday scenes with a sense of poetry and nostalgia. The show was the first to explore the full range of the artist’s works on paper, from quick sketches to pastels, watercolors, and charcoal drawings. It run @The_Morgan through September 2018.

Drink Syrups, 1964. Pastel

Nine Jelly Apples, 1964. Watercolour and graphite

Diagonal City, 1978. Graphite

Freeways Study, ca. 1982. Graphite and coloured pencil

Three Roads, 1983. Charcoal

Untitled (Intersection), 1977-78. Graphite

Circle of Fish, 1973. Pastel

Candy Ball Machine, 1977. Gouache and pastel

Spectacles and Bee Still Life, 1971. Charcoal

Tennis Girl, 1967. Graphite

Cakes No. 1, 1967. Pastel and graphite

Delicatessen Counter, 1961. Ink, oil, watercolour and graphite

Ice Cream Cone, 1964. Graphite

Untitled (Three Ice Creams), 1964. Pastel and graphite

Girl in Striped Sweater, 1965. Graphite

The Morgan Library

May 20th, 201818

The Morgan Library & its hidden gems

The great works of art, rare printed books, manuscripts and paintings by Italian and Netherlandish masters that adorn Mr. Morgan’s opulent library, are not exactly hidden but scroll further down to discover some really rare gems – usually hidden from view – that were on show at the lower level.  Thomas Gainsborough
Portrait of Caroline, 4th Duchess of Marlborough, ca. 1770

Inspired thirteen different English translations, printed in more than a hundred editions. This is the first edition in English, a legendary rarity. Why it is so rare, is hard to tell; perhaps the first copies were loved to death or the printing was curtailed by a miscalculation of the publisher. Only one other copy is recorded in an American library. The Morgan also has Heidi in French and German first editions, both in bindings with the same pictorial designs as these volumes.

To mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the publication of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic story “The Little Prince”, the Morgan presents five newly discovered drawings by the author as well as intimate memorabilia from his time in New York during the 1940s. The items belonged to the American artist Joseph Cornell (1903–1972), who met Saint-Exupéry at the very moment the French author-aviator was drafting what would become one of the world’s favorite books. Cornell kept a dossier of papers and fragments that served as echoes of their encounters—everything from a marked-up cocktail napkin to an unpublished sketch of the little prince perched at the edge of a rose-covered cliff. Cornell’s Saint-Exupéry dossier was acquired by the Morgan in 2014 and is now shown in its entirety, for the first time, in the Morgan’s lower level lobby gallery.

The Morgan Library

May 20th, 2018

Peter Hujar: Speed of Life

The life and art of Peter Hujar (1934–1987) were rooted in downtown New York. Private by nature, combative in manner, well-read, and widely connected, Hujar inhabited a world of avant-garde dance, music, art, and drag performance. His mature career paralleled the public unfolding of gay life between the Stonewall uprising in 1969 and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

In his loft studio in the East Village, Hujar focused on those who followed their creative instincts and shunned mainstream success. He made, in his words, “uncomplicated, direct photographs of complicated and difficult subjects,” immortalizing moments, individuals, and subcultures passing at the speed of life.

Peter Hujar: Speed of Life was on view at the Morgan Library through May 20, 2018.

Cat on Cash Register, 1957

Chloe Finch, 1981

Reclining Nude on Couch, 1978

Daisy Aldan, June 18, 1955

Nude Self-Portrait, Running, 1966-67

For a 1966-67 workshop led by Richard Avedon and art director Marvin Israel, Hujar turned in an uncharacteristic series of nude, running self-portraits made with a flash unit in the studio of his employer. In a conscious echo of Avedon’s manner, the images emphasize action, vivid gesture and empty space- sensational effects calculated to hold a magazine page. Over the next couple of years, during Hujar’s brief pursuit of a career in fashion, the two photographers had frequent late-night phonecalls. Avedon wrote to him in 1979, ”if you ever have new work that you’re interested in selling, please call me as I am your collector.”

New York: Sixth Avenue (1), 1976

Candy Darling on Her Deathbed, 1973

In September 1973, transgender Warhol Superstar Candy Darling (born James Lawrence Slattery) was hospitalized for lymphoma. She asked Hujar to make a portrait of her ”as a farewell to my fans.” Out of several dozen exposures, Hujar chose to print this languorous pose. As rendered in the print, Candy’s banal, fluorescent-lit hospital room looks as elegant as the studio props in a Hollywood starlet’s portrait. Hujar later wrote that his style cues came from Candy, who was ”playing every death scene from every movie.”

The image, first seen in print in the New York Post after Candy’s death six months later, became the most widely reproduced of Hujar’s works during his lifetime.

Fran Lebowitz at Home in Morristown, New Jersey, 1974

Dana Reitz’s legs, Walking, 1979 & Sheryl Sutton, 1977

John McClellan, 1981

Stephen Varble (3), 1976

Edwin Denby (1), 1975

Rose and Edward Murphy (2), 1977

Hujar photographed his mother and her second husband, Ed ”Snookie” Murphy, on a rare occasion when they visited his loft. Obliged at age eleven to move into their one-bedroom apartment on E 32nd St., Hujar had moved out at sixteen. In adulthood, he maintained a protective distance, consistently referring to Rose Murphy by her full, unrelated-sounding name. Rose Murphy never reconciled herself to her son’s homosexuality, nor did he forgive her rejection.

When invited to a friend’s for dinner, Hujar often gave his host a recent photograph printed at a modest scale. No other print of this image is known.

The Morgan Library & Museum

May 20th, 2018

Master Drawings @ The Morgan Library

We were back at The Morgan to see the magnificent Old Masters’ drawings from the Thaw Collection, that were displayed at the time.

These are some highlights, which I hope you’ll enjoy.

Odalisque with Slave, 1839
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) and Jean-Charles Thévenin (1819-1869)
Black chalk and graphite, black and brown wash with white and grey opaque watercolour

Reading, ca. 1860
Honoré Daumier (1808-1879)
Pen and black ink and grey wash with black fabricated chalk over charcoal

Woman Churning Butter, ca. 1855-58
Jean-François Millet (1814-1875)
Black Conté crayon

Leave It All to Providence, from the Black Border Album, 1816-20
Francisco de Goya (1746-1828)
Black ink and grey wash

Portrait of Arthur Rimbaud, 1872
Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904)
Watercolour and white opaque watercolour over black chalk on light brown paperboard

The Spider, 1902
Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
Charcoal and black pastel

The Fool, 1877
Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
Charcoal with black chalk and fixative on light brown paper

Artist in the making

Nurse with a Child’s Carriage
Georges Seurat(1859–1891)
Conté crayon on Ingres paper

Vincent van Gogh
Letter to Émile Bernard, 7 June 1888

Energized by his visit to the seaside town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, van Gogh wrote enthusiastically to Bernard about his explorations of complementary colours (“No blue without yellow and without orange“) and his consideration of black and white as colours. He included several sketches to explain his ideas and enclosed a sheet containing drawings of canvasses in progress.

Vincent van Gogh
Letter to Paul Gauguin, 17 October 1888

Writing to Gauguin, who was to arrive later that month, van Gogh extolled the attractions of Arles and chronicled his progress on one of his masterpieces from the period, Bedroom at Arles (1888; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), even including a sketch.

Portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, 1936
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Pen and black ink and wash

Caricature of a Sleeping Man, ca. 1755-60
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770)
Pen and black ink and wash

Young Woman Wearing a Chemise, ca. 1718
Antoine Watteau (1684-1721)
Black, red and white chalk

Interior of a Library, ca. 1780-85
Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728-1799)
Pen and black and brown ink and washes over graphite with black chalk

November 18th, 2017






of the Gotham Galaxy

About the art:

Public art sculpture >> The Guardians: Superhero (2013) by Antonio Pio Saracino, in Three Bryant Park

From my collection >> Davros and Baby Groot reading the news about Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci, which had just been sold at Christie’s for a staggering $450 million, the most expensive painting in the world ever sold in an auction. The buyer was a Saudi prince and the painting was supposed to go on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi but he exhibition was cancelled without any explanation. Salvator Mundi has gone missing from the public eye ever since. Its whereabouts but also its authenticity are subjects of much debate and speculation.

At the Morgan Library >> An early sixteenth century figure of St. Elizabeth of Schoenau (1129-1165), a German nun who published three volumes describing her divine visions, probably the reason she is shown here holding a book.

November 16-18, 2017

An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene

Belle Greene, Librarian

In 1905 Pierpont Morgan hired twenty-six-year-old Belle da Costa Greene (1879-1950) to manage his library. She added to his collections with legendary discernment and went on to become a leading figure in the rare book world. She served as the Morgan’s first director until her retirement in 1948. 

This brief tag accompanies Ms. Greene’s photo at The Lower Level. Nowhere else in the museum, was there anything to be found about this formidable woman and her work. Yet without her, there would be no Morgan Library Collection as we know and enjoy it today.

Greene was a young librarian at Princeton University, when her colleague Junius Morgan, who happened to be J. Pierpont Morgan’s nephew, introduced her to his wealthy uncle, who was looking for someone to catalogue his collection.

Child of two African-American parents of mixed ancestry, identified as ”colored” in her birth certificate, Belle knew that she would not be able to reach her dream of becoming a librarian had she been open about her family background. So she hid it and invented a relative in Portugal (the ”da Costa” part of her name) that would explain her darker complexion. She also shortened her real name from Greener to Green, to distance herself from her father, Richard Greener, the first coloured librarian and professor at the University of South Carolina.

Smart, witty, outspoken and sensual with a great sense of style and an extensive designer wardrobe (”Just because I’m a librarian”, she has been known to exclaim, ”doesn’t mean I have to dress like one!”) Belle was equally at ease among the Bohemian crowd as well as the scholarly elite.

Trusted for her expertise and excellent bargaining skills, Green would handle considerable amounts of money buying and selling rare manuscripts, books and art for Mr. Morgan. She went on doing that for forty-three years, first as librarian, then as the first director of the Morgan Library, when it became a public institution.

Belle Green retired in 1948 and died two years later.


More about this amazing woman and her life & work can be found in her biography ”An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege” by Heidi Ardizzone. 

The Morgan Library & Museum

May 7th, 2017