A History of Charcoal Portraits

By Maureen A. Taylor

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charcoal portraits photo detective maureen taylor

This week I’ll feature a question from a reader:

“Show Your Roots” in Tree Talk (Jan./Feb. 2018) featured a family heirloom collection which showed a large charcoal portrait of Peter B. Olson. When was it popular to have charcoal portraits made? Were they expensive? Were they commonplace? I have a large 13.5 by 19.5 charcoal of my great grandfather, Anton Martin, which was done in the early 1900s when the family lived in Bridgeville, PA, near Pittsburgh. I have often wondered why he would have it done. I have another one of a married couple from Calumet, Michigan, with no possible date, plus a snapshot of them in their home with a charcoal of an unknown man hanging on a wall. What is the history of these art works, and why did they catch on? Are there any worthwhile resources about charcoal portraits?

Joseph M., Romeoville, Illinois

Great question! These misunderstood portraits are often confusing. Is it a drawing or a photograph?

It’s actually both.

Hand-coloring dates back to the daguerreotype era of the 1840s. A bit of pink on the cheeks and a touch of gold made portraits more lifelike. Some photographers employed artists to color clothing and dresses too.

The charcoal pictures are part of that hand-coloring tradition they date from the 1860s into the twentieth century. There are various styles for each period. Portraits enhanced with India ink, charcoal, and crayons were primarily oversize and meant for display. Joseph isn’t alone. I have one of my great grandfather as well.

These images might be enhanced to fix graying hair or eliminate wrinkles, for instance. No everything seen in one of these enhanced prints could be real. The artist could add a bit of jewelry or a fancy collar.

Why did a person choose a charcoal sketch?

They could commemorate a wedding, an anniversary, a business promotion, or a graduation. Basically, it was just one of type of picture similar to a painted portrait without the expense of sitting for an artist. Do you have one to share? Send it to me.