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 Sara Carles  (1894 - 1965)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania/New York      Known for: painting, illustration

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Ad Code: 4
Sara Carles
Amaryllis, c.1920s
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Sara Carles Johns (1894-1965)

Sara Carles was one of the circle of Philadelphia modernists who centered on her brother and mentor, the painter Arthur B. Carles, Jr., in the 1920’s.

Her paintings from this period were, like his, mainly floral still lives and portraits executed in an abstracted, cubist influenced manner.  Sara Carles attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) from 1916 – 1921.[1]  She won the prestigious William Emlen Cresson Memorial Traveling Scholarship for a summer and fall of travel in Europe in May 1919.[2]  She took sketch classes at the Grand Chaumier in Paris and enthusiastically embraced the art of Matisse, Brancusi, and Bonnard.[3]  She returned to Philadelphia in fall 1920.

In addition to her participation in the 1921 Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings Showing the Later Tendencies in Art, shown at the PAFA, (along with Thomas Hart Benton, Joseph Stella, and Alfred Stieglitz) to which she contributed Study, her work was exhibited in the PAFA's Annuals: Nude in 1920, In White in 1925.[4]  Her PAFA attendance record indicates that she was “awarded $25 by Mr. Lewis for portrait on Cresson wall” – May 1920.  In 1923, Sara Carles was one of 31 Philadelphia modernist artists chosen to exhibit at the 31 Exhibition at 1607 Walnut Street, Philadelphia.  Among the other artists included were Hugh Breckenridge, Arthur B. Carles, Christine Chambers, Jean Chambers, Charles Demuth, Earl Horter, Anna Ingersoll, Henry McCarter, and Charles Sheeler.[5][5a]

Sara Carles’ painting, In White, now in the permanent collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, was painted around 1923 and purchased for the collection from the 1925 annual Academy exhibition for $375.00.[6]

Sara Carles taught at the Barnes Foundation, one of the first comprehensive collections of European and American impressionist and modernist art in America, (Henry Matisse is said to have called it the only sane place in America to view art), in Merion, PA in the spring of 1925[7] and toured the galleries and museums of Europe with Mr. and Mrs. Albert Barnes and a group of students in the summer/fall of the same year.[8]  Mr. Barnes organized a “class in the study of paintings” to be conducted by Miss Sara Carles in October 1925.  The class was to meet once a week at her studio at 4920 Parkside Avenue and once a week at the Barnes Foundation.  He recommended that the PAFA sponsor a similar class taught by Miss Carles.[7]  In a letter to her at this time – he said “…you have any other painter in America skinned on what makes a painting a work of art…we’re back of you with all powers.”[9]

She married Percival Craig Johns – a fellow PAFA trained artist who worked as a freelance illustrator for N.W. Ayer and Son advertising company - in 1926 and had two children Craig and Adrian.  After her husband died tragically young in 1937, she moved to NYC, encouraged to do so by her niece, the painter and founder of the NY Studio School, Mercedes Carles Matter (daughter of Arthur B. Carles, Jr.).  With Mercedes, she moved in the world of the New York School artists.  She was friends with the DeKoonings, Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner and Hans Hoffman.

In 1939 her painting Madonna and Cloisters was exhibited in the one hundred and thirty-fourth annual exhibition of paintings and sculpture at PAFA, under the name Sara Carles John (sic).  Other artists represented included Isabel Bishop, Marsden Hartley, Reginald Marsh, Thomas Benton and Max Weber.[10]

Needing to support herself and her two children, after the death of her husband, Johns turned to fashion illustration.  She studied graphic design at Parsons at the New School.  There she met Alexey Brodovitch, the brilliant art director for Harper’s Bazaar from 1934 – 1958, who, as a class critic at Parsons from 1937 – 1938, recognized Johns’ avant-garde sensibility and began to commission work from her for Harper’s Bazaar.  Over the next 20 years she produced several covers as well as numerous spreads for the magazine.  She signed her work “SJohns”.  Her daughter, Adrian, became Brodovitch’s assistant under the editorship of Carmel Snow.  Johns also did work for Best and Co., Bendels, Bergdorf’s, and through the Margaret Macy Advertising Agency, for private clothing companies like Pringles of Scotland.

Johns was an innovator with a strong sense of fashion and style.  She developed a technique of fluid, Matisse-like drawings done in black wax pencil and overlaid with a collage effect of photographed fabrics or clear colored acetate.  She drew from models, Lisa Fonsegrive, Judy Johnstone, Jackson Pollack’s wife, Lee Krasner,[11] and her daughter, Adrian.  All were tall and willowy.  She would do a series of sketches and, choosing the best one, would put it on a light box and trace over it, still with the wax pencil, to refine.  No erasures were allowed; she had to capture the first impression.[12]
The 1940's and 50's were some of her most productive years in illustration.  She was one of Harper’s Bazaar’s favorite artists.  Art Director Alexander Liberman tried to lure her away to Vogue.  (In an interview with Kate Johns around 1978, he described her as "a seminal modern illustrator.”)  She was a "critic" in fashion illustration at Parsons for the years 1944-45 and 1947-48.[13]  In 1948 she won the prestigious annual Fashion and Style Award from the Art Director's Club in N.Y. for a cover illustration for Harper's Bazaar.[14]  Rosemary Torre, retired professor of fashion illustration at FIT, recently wrote, “For me, Sara Johns was one of the brightest stars in the fashion illustration firmament.  As a fashion illustration student at Parsons School of Design in the fifties, I collected pages of her work and carried them in my sketch book til they were quite worn.  Her work was a marvelous distillation of Dufy and Matisse – avant-garde even by today’s standards”.[15]  Johns’ work is included in the Frances Neady Collection of original fashion illustrations at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC.

Johns continued to illustrate and paint into the 1960’s and died in August 1965 in New York City.  Her painting, In White was exhibited at the PAFA in the 1996 show To Be Modern: American Encounters with Cezanne and Company.[16]
[1] Leibold, Cheryl. Archivist, PAFA.  E-mail to Kate Johns.  September 15, 2006.
[2] Leibold, Cheryl. Archivist, PAFA.  E-mail to Kate Johns.  September 15, 2006.
[3] Archives of PAFA.  Letter from Sara Carles to Arthur B. Carles, from Arthur B. Carles Papers.  September 20, 1920.
[4] Leibold, Cheryl. Archivist, PAFA.  E-mail to Kate Johns.  May 31, 2007.
[5] Wolanin, Barbara A.  Arthur B. Carles; Painting With Color, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1983, Note 109, p 145.
[5a] Shoemaker, Innis Howe.  Mad for Modernism, Earl Horter and His Collection.  Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1999.
[6] Leibold, Cheryl. Archivist, PAFA.  E-mail to Kate Johns.  May 31, 2007.
[7] Barnes Foundation Archives, AR. ABC. 1925, 1926.
[8] Archives of PAFA.  Letter from Sara Carles to Arthur B. Carles, from Arthur B. Carles Papers.  June 12, 1925.  (There are numerous letters from Sara to Arthur B. Carles in the Academy Archives, Arthur B. Carles papers.)
[9] Barnes Foundation Archives, AR. ABC. 1924, Carles.  1925, Sara.
[10] Archives of American Art.  Earl Horter Papers.  Catalogue of the 134th Annual Exhibit of Painting and Sculpture, January 29 – March 5, 1939.  The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
[11] Landau, Eileen G.; Kraskin, Sandra; Braff, Phyllis; Zakian, Michael.  Mercedes Matter, Mark Borghi Art Publishing Co., 2009.
[12] Johns, Craig.  Interview with Kate Johns.  2006
[13] Barber, Theodore.  Archivist, The Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Archives Center, Parsons The New School for Design.  E-mail to Kate Johns.  October 10, 2006.
[14]  Davis, Myrna.  Executive Director, The Art Directors Club, Inc.  E-mail to Kate Johns.  October 5, 2006.
[15] Torre, Rosemary.  E-mail to Kate Johns.  August 28, 2007.
[16] Leibold, Cheryl. Archivist, PAFA.  E-mail to Kate Johns.  June 1, 2007.

Book References:
Boese Wolanin, B. A. (2000). The Orchestration of Color: The Paintings of Arthur B. Carles. Hollis Taggart Galleries

Falk, P. H. (1999) Who Was Who in American Art, 1564-1975. Connecticut: Sound View Press.

Landau, E. G.; Kraskin, S.; Braff, P.; Zakian, M (2009).  Mercedes Matter, Mark Borghi Art Publishing Co.

Meyers, M. A. (2004) Art, Education and African American Culture: Albert Barnes and the Science of Philanthropy. Transaction Publishers.

Petteys, C. (1985) Dictionary of Women Artists: An International Dictionary of Women Artists Born Before 1900. Boston: G.K. Hall.

Shoemaker, I. H. (1999). Mad for Modernism, Earl Horter and His Collection. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Torre, R. (to be released fall 2011). The Feminine Ideal in 20th Century Fashion Illustration. Dover Publications

Wolanin, B. A. (1983) Arthur B. Carles, Painting With Color. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Information provided by Kate Johns, the grand-daughter of the artist.

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