Portrait Drawings & Oil Sketches from
Jacques-Louis David to Lucian Freud

Jacques-Louis David
Aubrey Beardsley
Alphonse de Labroue
Alfred Hitchcock
Lucian Freud
William Henry Hunt
DeWitt Hardy
Georges Lemmen
Andre Gill
Robert Crumb
Pierre Bonnard
Théophile Alexandre Steinlen
Edgar Degas
Portrait Drawings & Oil Sketches
from Jacques Louis David to Lucian Freud

Installation, Dixon Gallery & Gardens, Memphis, TN, 2018


CONTEMPLATING CHARACTER: Portrait Drawings & Oil Sketches from Jacques-Louis David to Lucian Freud, is now available for circulation to museums worldwide through 2022. The exhibition premiered at the Lowe Art Museum, Coral Gables, Florida in 2015, followed by exhibtions at the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, Florida, in February, 2016, and in 2018 at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, TN.

Installation, Lowe Art Museum, Coral Gables, Florida, October, 2015

The exhibition explores the evolution of portraiture from the end of the 18th century until the present. In contrast to portraiture as the tired flattery of the rich and powerful at the end of the eighteenth century, the invigorating new movements of Neoclassicism, Romanticism and Realism that took hold of art at the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century were the result of a desire for a sense of "unvarnished truth," and a more honest and gritty incisiveness of depiction emerged. By the twentieth century, the hallmark of the portrait was individuality; the sense of “personality” was primary, whether stylistically Post-Impressionist, Expressionist, Surrealist, or Realist.

Installation, Dixon Gallery & Gardens, Memphis, TN, 2018

One of the primary drivers of this evolution was the invention of photography at the end of the 1830s; it freed creative artists from the necessity of providing mere likeness through their art, to the degree that Paul Delaroche said, “From today, painting is dead.” He was wrong, of course—the competition of photography simply freed artists from the chore of representation, allowing imagination to rule. It this evolution that CONTEMPLATING CHARACTER clearly demonstrates with stunning examples.

152 rare portrait drawings and oil sketches are featured, ranging from a late 18th century work by Jacques Louis David to four works by Lucian Freud, and including many remarkable works such as a French Revolution portrait of George Washington all of one half inch high; an unusual caricature of Charles Garnier (1825-1898,) the famed architect of the Paris Opera; an English portrait miniature circa 1810 depicting a single eye; a self-portrait reflected in a glass, part of a still life by Auguste-Hilaire Leveille; and a self-portrait by Louis-Joseph-Cesar Ducomet (French 1806-1856,) an artist born without arms!

Installation, Lowe Art Museum, Coral Gables, Florida, October, 2015

Additionally the collection shows remarkable strength in self-portraits, ireverently including such works as Alfred Hitchcock’s  famous profile seen by millions at the introduction to the television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (1955—1962,) and Aubrey Beardsley’s decadent India ink portrait of Oscar Wilde. 

The works are divided into seven sections:

[ 1 ] ARTIST SELF-PORTRAITS - (46): including Gustave Dore, Richard (“Mad”) Dadd, Adolf von Menzel, Roderic O'Conor, Antonio Mancini, Edouard Vuillard, Leon Spillaert , Frank Brangwyn, Dora Maar, David Levine, and Alfred Hitchcock.

[ 2 ] PORTRAITS OF ARTISTS - (11 works): including portraits of Jacques-Louis David by Delafontaine and J. B. Isabey, Henry Fuseli by William Etty, William Blake by George Richmond, Samuel Palmer by John Linnel, John Ruskin by Samuel Laurence, Odilon Redon by Claude-Emile Schuffenecker, Alfred von Menzel by William Rothenstein, Max Klinger by Emil Orlik, and Thomas Eakins by Mrs. Palmer

[ 3 ] FAMILY - Portraits of wives, lovers, children, close friends (22 works):- including Sir Thomas Lawrence , John Linnell, Francis Danby, Daniel Maclise, Adolf von Menzel, Edward Burne Jones, George Bellows, Lucien Freud

[ 4 ]UNKNOWN SITTERS AS SUBJECTS - Intense visual interest of the sitter (20 works): including Louis-Léopold Boilly, Théodore Chasseriau , William Mulready, Richard Dadd, Adolf von Menzel, Jean-Jacques Henner

[ 5 ] FAME - Portraits of famous individuals (12):-including George Washington, André Chenier, Washington Irving, Ellen André, Henry Irving, Oscar Wilde

[ 6 ] DRAMA AND IMAGINATION - A wide range of imagery (26): including “Ossian” by Baron Gerard and Girodet, an "eye" miniature circa 1820, 9 silhouettes by the great Auguste Edouart of the evangelist Charles Simeon preaching (it’s like a stop action movie!), 27 portrait sketches on a single page by Richard Dadd, Nicholas Sternberg’s 1927 drawing of a morphine addict shooting up, & two amazing drawings by R. Crumb

[7] REPOSE and ENDINGS- Individuals sleeping (5): including William Henry Hunt, Théodore Rousseau, Hans Bellmer, Lucian Freud. - Images of death or impending death (9): including a haunting Carpeaux self-portrait in the year he died, and an anonymous drawing

A Full Color Hardcover 160 Page Catalog Is Available

All of the works are drawn from the collection of esteemed curator, Robert Flynn Johnson, Curator Emeritus, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

A catalogue has been published for the exhibition featuring an essay by Robert F. Johnson. Label and text panel documents are for printing.

The exhibition is organized by Landau Traveling Exhibitions, Los Angeles, in association with Denenberg Fine Arts, West Hollywood.



Exhibition Information


152 works in various mediums
Text panels and label copy

Lecturer: Curator, Robert Flynn Johnson is available for lectures and educational progamming
Space req: 300-400 running feet approx.
Publications: A catalog has been published
Loan Fee: Upon Request
Shipping & Insurance: Exhibitor responsible

Landau Traveling Exhibitions
310 397 3098




October 15 , 2015
- January 17, 2016
Lowe Art Museum
Coral Gables, FL


February 5 - May 29
St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts
St. Petersburg, FL


April 13 - June 24
Dixon Gallery & Gardens

Memphis, TN

September 1 - December 2

Pauly Friedman Art Gallery
Miseracordia University
Dallas, PA








Robert Flynn Johnson

Every portrait that is painted with feeling
is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter.

                                                      —Oscar Wilde 1

This exhibition of portrait drawings and oil sketches extends almost two and a half centuries. Portraiture is not, as some might think, simply the recognition of an artist’s skill in rendering a likeness. Far from it. Simple replication is not all that difficult—witness street artists of limited talent plying their trade in major cities around the world. Rather, this assemblage of over one hundred and fifty works has been brought together to explore ‘character,’ not just physiognomy. George H. Gould wrote,

“ the action or reaction of personality against circumstance, not under or dominated by circumstance. To have character is to control circumstance.” 2

The challenge of any truly successful portrait is to capture the soul beneath the surface of an individual’s appearance.

The works resulting from this collaboration between the individual who contemplates (the artist), and the subject who exhibits character (the sitter) are extremely varied. The resulting works display a wide variety of expression ranging from beauty and dignity to wit and satire, including profound sadness, and even the macabre. The exhibition attempts to broadly answer the question—what exactly constitutes a portrait?  An expansionist sensibility has consistently informed my selections for this exhibition, including three portraits represented not by faces but by hands.

Portraiture can be numbingly boring—best-forgotten renditions of bank presidents, college professors, and politicians; the endless limpid depictions of prior generations of relatives that no family member wants to inherit. However, portraits are also capable of being the most transformative, emotionally sublime, and deeply moving images in all art. Just consider our obsessive devotion to likenesses created by Leonardo, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Ingres, Degas, and Picasso. And apparently even the art market concurs with this assessment—eight of the ten most expensive works ever sold are some form of portraiture.

As a collector of portraits since the early nineteen seventies, my focus has evolved over four decades. I have often said that as a collector, "the things I can afford I do not want, and the things I want I cannot afford." When my desire for ownership and my financial ability coincide—a work enters my collection. In the early days I asked a dealer why a strikingly beautiful portrait drawing I had just purchased was so reasonably priced. Sighing, he told me, "in general collectors avoid portraiture unless the sitter is an exalted personage." He continued, "It is a very undervalued area of collecting."

I went away quietly savoring this moment, for I had discovered a future path for my collection which was to become focused on portraiture and the varied media of works on paper that could still offer a wealth of fine art that I could afford. The results of this 40-year journey are present in this exhibition. I heeded the words of my late friend R.B. Kitaj who wrote, "Don't listen to the fools who say that pictures of people can be of no consequence, or that painting is dead. There is much to be done." 3

The fact that there are no portraits in the exhibition by artists such as Ingres, Delacroix, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, or Giacometti is not out of any lack of respect for those artists. On the contrary, acquisition of major works by such artists as these was my mission for the museums in which I worked for forty years. This exhibition is drawn from the collection of a scholar, acquired on a scholar's salary, whose focus was limited because of his professional responsibilities. Nevertheless, I relished the hunt for examples of portraiture displaying skill and imagination without concern for name recognition or price, which drives so much of the art market today.

Rather than a simple chronological arrangement of the exhibition, I have divided it into seven sections that should provide the viewer with provocative visual juxtapositions:

  1. Self Portraits
  2. Portraits of artists
  3. Family
  4. Unknown Sitters as Subjects
  5. Fame
  6. Drama and Imagination
  7. Repose and Endings

In my understanding and taste I am eclectic, and honestly enjoy and respect narrative and religious art, landscape, still life, and abstraction. In the end, however, I am fervently drawn to the vast variety of depictions of human beings in all their grandeur, helplessness, pride, and vulnerability. Every drawing in this exhibition has moved me deeply in some human way.

When an artist friend was asked to explain his art he replied, "I'd be a poor father indeed if I had to speak for my children." I feel the same way about this collection of drawings that I have passionately acquired over the years. My feelings for this subject matter is shared but far more eloquently stated by W.H. Auden when he wrote, “To me art's subject is the human clay, and landscape but a backgrounds to a torso. All Cézanne's apples I would give away for one small Goya or a Daumier. 4

Robert Flynn Johnson
Curator Emeritus
Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

1 Ian Crafton ed. A Dictionary of Art Quotations (New York; Schirmer Books, 1988) p.151
2 George M. Gould Concerning Lafcadio Hearn (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908) p. XII
3 Art Quotes, R.B. Kitaj;
4 Ian Crafton ed. A Dictionary of Art Quotations, (New York: Schirmer Books, 1988) p. 134


- Introduction - Illustrated Exhibition List Pdf - 
- Introduction by Curator Robert Flynn Johnson --
- Installation Images St. Peteresburg Museum of Fine Arts -
- Installation Images Lowe Art Museum -  
- Installation Dixon Gallery & Gardens, Memphis, TN -
- Review from ArtDaily - Review Tampa Bay Times -
- Exhibition Info - Schedule -

- Back to Top -