Personal Remembrances in Charcoal: the Eternal Value of Each Individual Spark
Have you ever wished you could travel back in time to meet people belonging to a particular place or era—not the flat cut-outs represented in history books, but real individuals, on their own terms and in a setting closer to their spontaneous (or quotidian) experience? Have you ever wondered about the authentic emotional lives, dreams, and accomplishments of people long dead, unrecorded, and lost to time? I have—and for no era more than the Victorian one.
Few artists were able to successfully escape the insidious stiffness pervading the photographs and portraiture of the time; but the advent of the Edwardian age served to lighten things up a bit. George Washington Lambert’s charcoal portrait of Thea Proctor, c. 1905, allows us an unfiltered glimpse of a well-to-do woman of the time, at once unaffected and demonstrative in her expression and posture. The work, completed in the simple medium of charcoal, stands as a singularly honest portrayal of relaxed natural beauty and unvarnished emotion.
The artist’s darker marks, perhaps intentionally wide and emphatic, remain sensitive to the intricacies of the subject’s hair, neckline, and dress while giving way to an effortlessly light and respectful evocation of her face. Mobile and expressive, Thea’s eyes convey their original spirit, caught only for a brief moment. One has the impression that she had been speaking with Lambert as he worked, and had paused for reflection before continuing her train of thought. His enormous talent was such that we, as viewers, might as well be in conversation with her today.
Thea’s full humanity is present in the piece; nothing is held back, restricted, or objectified. Her neck is relaxed, her chin forward; her attitude is one of openness, softness, and patience. Here, she is simply being herself, free of social expectation or concern with image, and the artist does an impeccable job of conveying her personality with kindness, emotional fluency, and intellectual acuity.
How can you, as a charcoal artist, work with similar sensitivity? What kinds of embedded or culturally-derived assumptions would you need to dismantle? How does the figure-drawing class actually limit sensitivity and perception? This month, try drawing your friends. Spend time with them individually, and give them each a portrait that conveys their unique and irreplaceable qualities. Someday, they may hand down your drawing as an heirloom, just as Thea gifted her niece with Lambert’s treasured portrait.
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Cathryn Lykes holds a B.A. in French from Vassar College, and lives in Vermont with her daughter and two cats.