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September 22, 2021 – January 30, 2022

The World of Yousuf Karsh

A Private Essence

Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002) was indisputably one of the greatest portraitists of the 20th century.

Over the course of more than half a century, his lens captured not only the idealized essences of his subjects, but their true individual characters as well. His unforgettable, enduring, poignant images speak of empathy and embrace the whole of humanity. Thanks to the extraordinary generosity of the artist’s wife, Estrellita Karsh, the MMFA is the grateful recipient of 111 pristinely preserved photographs. Among these gelatin silver prints, most of which are in large formats, are many rare prints, meticulously developed by the artist himself.

Partial view of the exhibition. © Estate of Yousuf Karsh. Photo MMFA, Denis Farley


The exhibition features renowned images of political figures, including Fidel Castro, Winston Churchill, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Nelson Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Adding to them are Karsh’s compelling portraits of influential figures of theatre, film, music, the visual arts and literature, as well as outstanding scientists and spiritual leaders of the 20th century. A Private Essence also displays Karsh’s immortalized images of the cowboys, farmers, steelworkers and icons of culture and artistic achievement who embody the integrity of the Canadian spirit.

The exhibition traces the chronology of the artist’s life and stylistic development and the evolving world history he so brilliantly documented. Many photographs are accompanied by short texts quoting from the artist’s own recorded impressions and thoughts on his subjects during his sessions.

Yousuf Karsh, Karen Kain

In the media

Stars de cinéma, géants de la politique ou sportifs légendaires, Yousuf Karsh a photographié les plus grands avec une sensibilité et une maîtrise incomparables.

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Radio-Canada logo

Nabi-Alexandre Chartier

ICI Radio-Canada, Le Téléjournal

Ce n’est ni plus ni moins qu’un cours d'histoire du XXe siècle. […] Ça vaut le détour.

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Evelyne Charuest
Dessine-moi un dimanche

[The exhibition] looks beyond the iconic images of Canada’s great portrait photographer — indeed, probably the greatest portrait photographer of the 20th century — to give a rounded account of his unique talent and sensibility.

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The Montreal Gazette logo
Ian McGillis
The Montreal Gazette

L’exposition […] explore la riche variété de son œuvre, depuis ses débuts et expérimentations symbolistes jusqu’à son style atypique dans l’art du portrait psychologique, dont il s’est fait une spécialité.

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Valentin Bec
La Gazette Drouot

Cette magnifique exposition prend vie à Montréal. Il ne faut pas la manquer.

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Suzette Paradis

Credits and curatorial team

An exhibition organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and curated by Hilliard T. Goldfarb, Senior Curator – Collections and Curator of Old Masters, MMFA.

Images © Estate of Yousuf Karsh

Exhibition Patron:
Official Sponsor:
Public partners:
Conseil des arts de Montréal
Canada Council for the Arts
Gouvernement du Québec

Partial view of the exhibition. © Estate of Yousuf Karsh. Photo MMFA, Denis Farley

Yousuf Karsh, Karen Kain

Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002), Karen Kain, 1977. MMFA, gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh. © Estate of Yousuf Karsh

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