Portrait of a Gentleman
Black and white chalk on blue paper
Purchased through the Julia L. Whittier Fund; D.967.99
Portraiture was a popular genre for finished drawings from the Renaissance onward. The face has always been an enduring subject for artists when exploring human emotion, social status, and individual identity, and portrait drawings were commissioned and collected as early as the 1470s. They were often valued for their intimate quality and cherished as souvenirs of personal associations and public affiliations. Compared to large-scale, formal, painted representations, drawings could be easily exchanged and casually displayed. While the conventions and techniques of finished portraits have varied over the centuries, they have all shared a desire to portray either the illusion or the reality of physical likeness and individual personality.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Thomas Couture was the most popular artist in France. He was celebrated and idolized by a generation of French and American students, who flocked to his newly established art school in Paris. In the studio he demonstrated his procedures for the benefit of pupils, eventually publishing a summary of his teaching methodology and practical techniques titled Conversations on Art Methods that was widely read on both continents after it appeared in French (1867) and English (1879). With regard to drawings, Couture generally advised students to work quickly and to draw figures engaged in everyday tasks. His preferred medium was black chalk. While his own sheets showed varying degrees of finish and vitality, he greatly appreciated the qualities of a sketch and promoted its status as a self-sufficient work.
Couture was generally renowned for his grand history paintings, but he also achieved recognition as a portrait artist. In Portrait of a Gentleman Couture convincingly renders a strong sense of the sitter’s physiognomy, meticulously executing his three-quarter view of the figure’s head and shoulders in such a way that the high degree of finish does not compromise a sense of spontaneity. The addition of the artist’s initials and date suggest that this portrait was conceived as an independent work of art.
Last Updated: 1/21/10