About five years ago, when I was living in Toronto, a group of us (museum docents) drove down to Buffalo, which is just across the border, to visit the Albright Knox Museum. The show we went there specifically to see had the rather portentous title The Triumph of French Painting. Yet upon finishing our first walkthrough of the galleries we all agreed that for once an exhibit had lived up to its hype, for it was indeed a successful march through the French painting in the 19th and early 20th century, illustrated with superb examples of its major movements from Ingres to Matisse.
Baltimoreans were very lucky, I remember thinking, to have such savvy and public-spirited collectors as Henry and William Walters, George A. Lucas and Claribel and Etta Cone bestowing Gallic treasure on the two art museums. I made a note to visit these institutions when the occasion presented itself.
I've been to Baltimore many times since then, most recently this Monday to preview the latest collaboration between the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Drawing (no pun intended) upon their vast holdings of French 19th century drawings and watercolors (estimated at over 900 pieces) The Essence of Line: French Drawings from Ingres to Degas features both preliminary sketches and highly finished works by some of the most renowned figures in French art, as well as work by many artists who were once better known than they are now.
Drawing is a much-unappreciated art form, primarily because the works are so rarely exhibited in the museums that own them. They only make a brief public appearance on those occasions when they fit into a larger show. Otherwise, hidden away folder filed in boxes in dark rooms due to their fragility and sensitivity to light they are poured over only by scholars and connoisseurs for the many insights they afford into the mind and working methods of their creators as well as for their sheer intensity and beauty.
The Essence of Line is thematically divided between the two institutions. At the Walters there are about 75 drawings that emphasize how artists use drawing as part of the creative process. Here one sees work by the immortals such as Jacques-Louis David, Ingres, Géricault, Delacroix, Degas, Renoir and Seurat, as well as by less well-known figures such as Antoine-Louis Barye, Thomas Couture and Paul Gavarni.
That many of these artists in the show are no longer familiar names makes for a fascinating reflection on the rise and fall of reputation in the art world. One of the major themes of the show is how one can look back at the 19th century and trace a line of development from neo-classicism through romanticism and realism to the origins of modernism, and one of the contentions of the curators is that protomodernist works had more cachet for collectors like the Cones and scholars. But the curators have wisely chosen not to make this exhibit so one-dimensional.
In fact a number of works in the show by modernists turn out to reveal roots in the classical tradition, which modernism was supposed to have despised and rejected.
There are in fact as many stories here as there are individual artists, and the pleasures that this exhibit affords are only limited by one's time and ability to work out the relationship between early sketch and fully realized vision.
One fascinating example that opens the show is the pencil sketch by Cezanne of a muscular naked hero being devoured by a wild beast (Sketch after Puget's 'Milo of Croton') As the catalogue notes, the painter was himself struggling to depict volume and mass. The statue in the Louvre by Puget called Milo of Croton was a 17th century version of an ancient work that fascinated the homesick Cezanne in part because its maker was a fellow artist from Aix-en-Provence. The painter came back to draw the work again and again throughout his career making no less than twelve sketches of it. When one connects this fact with the series of Male Bathers paintings one achieves a rare insight into origins of his most personal work.
Likewise Degas early in his career sketched a feminine young man with shoulder length hair who turns out to be a figure in Raphael's Vatican fresco of the School of Athens ) Study after Raphael). It bears an astonishing resemblance to Degas' own self-portrait from this period and tells us that as a young man Degas understood how essential knowledge of works of art by past masters was to whatever path his art might take.
The second half of the show at the BMA takes a different tack showcasing highly finished drawings and watercolors intended for the art market and avidly collected by Baltimore artistic elite. Under such rubrics as "meditation, contemplation, reflection", "work, duty military", "prayer and devotion" and "portraits" and "the lighter side" there is terrific work by Toulouse-Lautrec, Millet, Mary Cassatt, and Manet.
For me the high points here are the four magnificent Daumiers, one of which (The Amateurs) illustrates so well the shift in the relationship between artists and their patrons that occurred in the 19th century that it also serves as the cover of the catalogue. As three eager amateurs look on, the artist-professor points with his stick at a painting before him. When middle class collectors began to dominate the art market once led by the state and the aristocrats, they required more cultivation and tutelage from the artists themselves as this work so ably illustrates. One can better appreciate how especially meaningful this watercolor was to its owner Henry Walters.
The notion of 19th connoisseurship and its relation to public education and democracy is brilliantly explored in the first essay in the catalogue, "Mise en scène" by Cheryl K. Snay: The collectors who are the focus here operated under the assumptions about drawing that are different from our own she writes. Foremost among them is that drawing has a salutary effect not only upon the practitioner but also on the beholder. The revolutionary impulse prevalent in the nineteenth century seized on this principle and turned drawing into an instrument of democracy by incorporating it into public education and mounting exhibitions - both small-scale and state-sponsored-that increased the public access to this material.
These notions also inform the online catalogue and website that these institutions have created at www.frenchdrawings.org, making the combined collections of the BMA and the Walters as well as the Peabody available. Users can search the database by artist, title, provenance, subject, and date and magnify images. Over 100 of the 150 works in the exhibit are highlighted. The website also allows albums of works on paper assembled by the collectors to be "reassembled" preserving the collector's arrangements.
I would have liked to see Baltimore's collectors more prominently featured on the website, and more substantive notes for the exhibited and non-exhibited works. Nevertheless, this is very much a work in progress and will no doubt be improved with time. As it stands now it is a treasure trove of the imagery of the 19th century that Americans in Baltimore found particularly resonant for all sorts of reasons, in the spirit of the words of Count de Caylus:
A great man is formed not only by the gifts of nature, but also by the sight of beautiful drawings.
|Walters Art Museum
|June 19-Sept. 11, 2005
|Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama
|Feb. 19-May 15, 2006
|Tacoma Art Museum, Washington
|June 9-Sept. 17, 2006
Artcyclopedia entries for artists mentioned in the text:
Missing the Picture: Desperate Housewives Do Art History, by Joseph Phelan
The Salvador Dalí Show, by Joseph Phelan
Boston Marathon, by Joseph Phelan
Philadelphia is for Art Lovers, by Joseph Phelan
Featured on the Web: Understanding Islamic Art and its Influence, by Joseph Phelan
Independence Day: Sanford R. Gifford and the Hudson River School, by Joseph Phelan
The "Look" of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, by Joseph Phelan
The Importance of Being Odd: Nerdrum's Challenge to Modernism, by Paul A. Cantor
Advent Calendar 2003, narrated by Joseph Phelan
If Paintings Could Talk: Paul Johnson's Art: A New History, by Joseph Phelan
Mad Max [Max Beckmann], by Joseph Phelan
Marsden Hartley: The Return of the Native, by Joseph Phelan
Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment, by Joseph Phelan
Frederic Remington's Nocturnes, by Joseph Phelan
Magnificenza! Titian and Michelangelo, Manet and Velazquez, by Joseph Phelan
Masterful Leonardo and Graphic Dürer, by Joseph Phelan
Favorite Online Art Museum Features, by Joseph Phelan
Studies for Masterpieces, by John Malyon
Portrait of the Artist as a Serial Killer, by Joseph Phelan
Renoir's Travelling, Bonnard's "At Home", by Joseph Phelan
The Philosopher as Hero: Raphael's The School of Athens, by Joseph Phelan
The Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization
Celebrating Heroes; Celebrating Benjamin West, by Joseph Phelan
Chasing the Red Deer into the American Sublime (Education and the Art Museum, Part II), by Joseph Phelan
Planning Your Summer Vacation, by Joseph Phelan
Education and the Art Museum, Part I, by Joseph Phelan
Unsung Griots of American Painting, by Joseph Phelan
The British Museum COMPASS Project, interview by Joseph Phelan
Robert Hughes, Time Magazine Art Critic: Biography and Writings
Software review: Le Louvre: The Virtual Visit on DVD-ROM, by Joseph Phelan
Tragedy and Triumph at Arles: Van Gogh and Gauguin, by Joseph Phelan
Her Last Bow: Sister Wendy in America, by Joseph Phelan
Love, Death and Resurrection: The Paintings of Stanley Spencer, by Joseph Phelan
Who is Rodin's Thinker?, by Joseph Phelan
Celebrations North and South, by Joseph Phelan
Rubens and his Age, by Joseph Phelan
Great Reproductions of Great Paintings
The Passion of Christ, by Joseph Phelan
Edouard Manet: Public Spaces, Private Dreams, by Joseph Phelan
Henry Moore and the British Museum: The Great Conversation, by Joseph Phelan
Notorious Portraits, Part II, by John Malyon
Notorious Portraits, Part I, by John Malyon
The Other Michelangelo, by Joseph Phelan
The Art of Drawing, by Joseph Phelan
Poussin and the Heroic Landscape, by Joseph Phelan
Great Art Museums Online, by Joseph Phelan
Venetian Painting and the Rise of Landscape, by Joseph Phelan
Forbidden Visions: Mythology in Art, by Joseph Phelan
Themes in Art: The Passion of Christ, by Joseph Phelan
Web site review: Christus Rex
Web site review: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., by Joseph Phelan
Online exhibit review: Inuit Art: The World Around Me, by John Malyon
Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Results)
Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part II)
Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part I)
Spotlight on The Louvre Museum
Spotlight on Impressionism
Spotlight on Optical Art
Spotlight on Animals in Art
Spotlight on Surrealism
Spotlight on Sculpture
Spotlight on Women in the Arts
Spotlight on The Golden Age of Illustration
Spotlight on Vincent van Gogh
Spotlight on Great Art