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Drawn to greatness: 500 years of western drawing

  • “Female Nude,” circa 1810 by Pierre-Paul Pud’hon, black and white chalk on blue paper. Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

  • “A View of the Tiber in Rome with Ponte Sisto and St. Peter’s in the Distance,” circa 1594 by Jan Brueghel the Elder, pen and brown ink and wash, blue watercolor, and black chalk on paper. Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

  • “Study for Execution for Sons of Brutus,” circa 1785 by Jacques Louis David, black chalk with pen and black ink and gray wash on paper. Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

  • “Seated Dancer,” 1871-72 by Edgar Degas, oil paint over graphite on pink paper.

  • “David and the Three Heroes,” 1658 by Claude Lorrain, pen and brown ink and wash, yellow-brown wash, white opaque watercolor and black chalk on paper. Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

  • “Two Shepherds with a Flock of Sheep,” circa 1660 by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, oil on paper. Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

  • “Heroic Landscape,” circa 1650 by Claude Lorrain, black chalk, pen and brown ink and wash, and blue watercolor on paper. Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

  • “Portrait of a Neapolitan Woman,” 1774 by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, brown wash over black chalk on paper. Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

  • “Moonlit Landscape,” circa early 1800s by Caspar David Friedrich, pen and black ink, brown wash and white gouache over graphite on paper. Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

  • “The Queen (Te arii vahine),” 1896-97 by Paul Gauguin, watercolor with gouache over black chalk on paper. Images courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

  • “Three Standing Saints,” circa 1450-55 by Andrea Mantegna, pen and brown ink on paper. Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

  • “Artybios on Horseback Attacking Onesilus,” 1543 by the Jörg Breu the Younger, pen and black ink, gray wash and white gouache on gray paper.

  • “Scene of Contemporary Life: The Quack Dentist,” circa 1791 by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, pen, brown ink, black wash and black chalk on paper. Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

  • “Head of a Black Man,” 1818-19 by  Théodore Géricault, black chalk on paper.  Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum



Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 06, 2018

For every great painting by the names that have long been celebrated in Western art — Rembrandt, Goya, Turner, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Matisse — there are any number of more basic works in their portfolios: drawings.

And, as a new exhibit at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown shows, drawing, like painting, changed considerably over the centuries, beginning during the Renaissance when it came to be seen as much more an intellectual exercise than a mechanical one.

The new show, “Drawn to Greatness,” showcases some five centuries of drawings that have been selected from the collection of the late New York/New Mexico art dealer and historian Eugene W. Thaw and his wife, Clare. Clark officials say the Thaws’ holdings, which the couple built over several decades, make up what’s considered one of the finest private collections of drawings in the world.

The 150 images are presented mostly chronologically, and together they offer a whirlwind tour of how the medium progressed from the mid-to-late 15th to the mid 20th centuries: from pen and ink drawings by Renaissance artists such as Andrea Mantegna of Italy, to the mix of oil paint and graphite used by Impressionists such as Edgar Degas in the 1800s, to modern works by Picasso and Jackson Pollock.

The exhibit also highlights Eugene Thaw’s taste for unusual sources for drawing, such as letters Van Gogh sent to friends that included small sketches of paintings he was working on. Then there’s the moody image of a castle at twilight created by the novelist and poet Victor Hugo in the 1850s; at the time, Hugo had been exiled from France because of his opposition to the country’s last emperor, Napoleon III.

All told, it’s a show that provides an intimate look at what artists were experimenting with in their drawings, whether in form or topic; the art can be humorous or serious, and in some cases one can see the precursor of later paintings or other works.

Thaw “had a wonderful eye for quality, and he collected multiple works by certain artists to show the range of their work,” said Jay A. Clarke, the curator of the Clark show. “He collected finished works, too, and he also framed his drawings — that’s a real benefit when it comes to hanging a show.”

The exhibit, taken from the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, to which the Thaws donated much of their artworks, is staged primarily in the Clark’s visiting art gallery, though a selection of drawings from the Romantic era is shown in the Eugene V. Thaw Gallery for Works on Paper (indeed, the Thaws were also generous donors to the Clark, museum officials say).

Expanding the medium

The exhibit’s first section, “The Rise of Drawing in the Renaissance,” makes the point that by the late 15th and early/mid 16th centuries, artists were using drawing not just to record scenes but to invent their own, or to advance an idea that would be fleshed out in a painting, print or etching.

Artists such as the Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder also experimented with a number of materials, Clarke noted. In his “A View of the Tiber in Rome,” circa the late 1500s, Brueghel created a pastoral but also somewhat somber view of a tumbledown Eternal City with pen, brown ink and wash, blue watercolor and black chalk.

One of the most striking images from this section is “Artybios on Horseback Attacking Onesilus” by the German artist Jörg Breu the Younger, who chronicled a story from ancient Greece in dark tones and stark detail: It shows the Persian general Artybios, on horseback, about to stab a foot-bound warrior, Onesilus, with a lance, while his horse bites the victim’s head.

Clarke said unlike many other sketches and preliminary drawings from this era, Jörg Breu’s 1543 work “was done as a finished or autonomous drawing, one that could stand on its own.”

As the exhibit shows, even precise and exacting painters like Rembrandt experimented with quick sketches, perhaps sometimes of live models, such as a 1638 drawing he made of four musicians with wind instruments. Another is Rembrandt’s “Three studies for a Descent from the Cross,” a sketch with three partial images of Jesus being taken down from the cross following his crucifixion.

Eugene Thaw liked to collect multiple works from many artists; one was the 18th century Italian painter and printmaker Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. As exhibit notes outline, Tiepolo was one of a number of Italian artists from that period whose drawings, mostly of pen-and-ink washes on bright paper, portrayed everyday life and occasionally fantasy.

Humor and satire were sometimes a theme, too. Tiepolo’s “The Quack Dentist” shows a line of people, their backs to the picture, looking up at two figures with grimacing faces, who both hold a hand to their right cheek. Two comical male figures — one with an overly large head, the other a bulging stomach — are at opposite sides of the drawing.

Adding color to the palette

Color becomes more common as the exhibit moves into the 19th and 20th centuries. In an era that brought dramatic changes to life, from the railroad to the camera to the automobile, artists from Delacroix to Degas and Gauguin to Cézanne expanded the range of drawings by mixing a number of materials: watercolor, gouache, graphite, pastels and chalk.

In Gauguin’s “The Queen (Te arii vahine),” from 1896-97, the artist who became known for his South Pacific portraits used watercolor, gouache and black chalk to create a similar image to an oil painting he had previously sold; this reproduction was likely made for a friend or for Gauguin’s “portable museum” of works on paper, according to exhibit notes.

Meantime, Edgar Degas was a restless experimenter in both medium and topic. The show features his drawings of jockeys, a cabaret singer, a bass player with the Paris Opera, a pastoral landscape and of course some ballerinas. His “Seated Dancer,” from 1871-72, is composed of oil paint over graphite on pink paper, and in other work he mixed pastels with oil.

The 20th century brought more changes — cubism, abstraction, collage — even as artists also continued to use traditional styles in their drawings. Picasso, for instance, drew his straightforward “Portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter” (one of his many lovers) in 1936 with pen and black ink and wash.

Jackson Pollock isn’t a name one generally associates with drawing, but his “Untitled (Abstract Ram)” from 1944 offers a fascinating preview of his abstract expressionist paintings. A mix of paint, pen and ink, black-ink wash and extensive scraping — Clarke says Pollock used sandpaper on the work — the drawing is centered on a loosely defined ram’s head and otherwise swirls with raw loops, lines and other shapes.

Clarke notes that Pollock’s influences included Mexican murals, Native American art and even the Jungian psychotherapy he underwent in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

It’s not every exhibit that mixes drawings by Pollock, Degas and Jörg Breu the Younger. But perhaps there have been few collectors as eclectic or willing to share his art as Eugene Thaw, who in a 1994 interview said “It’s also one of the joys of life to share it and show it to others who have some glimmering of what you’re doing.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

 “Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection” is on view at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown through April 22. For more information, visit clarkart.edu.