Drawn to Greatness, Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection is the largest collection of drawings yet to be exhibited at the Morgan Library and Museum and includes some 150 works. However, beyond the quantity of works, this exhibit is important because of the quality of the works. The artists represented in the exhibit are a Who's Who of western art from the Renaissance to the 20th century. Consequently, works of beauty and excellence unfold as you walk through the galleries.
The exhibit is drawn from the Thaw Collection, a gift of some 400 sheets by Eugene and Clare Thaw. It was amassed over the last 50 years by Mr. Thaw, an art dealer and collector. Interestingly, Mr. Thaw began his career handling the works of contemporary artists only later expanding into Old Masters. Mrs. Thaw encouraged her husband to keep some of the drawings that he was particularly enthusiastic about and so the collection was born.
Works from the Renaissance are the earliest works in the exhibit. As the signage at the exhibit tells us, this was when artistic drawing changed from mechanically recording an image to intellectually creating an image. The exhibit then proceeds chronologically through the centuries, revealing the many ways artists used drawing to create images.
The term drawing is used here in its broadest sense. It does not just encompass black and white images done with graphite or charcoal. Rather, the exhibit shows that there are many forms of drawing often involving color. These include pastels, watercolor, inks, chalks, and even oil paint to name a few mediums.
Indeed, I was struck by how artists in the 18th century would use several different mediums in their works. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, this multi-medium practice became lost so that today on social media an artist can be accused of “cheating” if a work contains say both gouache and watercolor.
The works here include finished pieces as well as works done in preparation for a painting or mural. However, because the drawings were often for the artist's personal use they are sometimes more revealing than works produced for sale as they are not as tempered by the need to please the tastes of the market. Turner's “The Pass of St. Goddard,” for example, is a swirling mass of colors that is closer to abstraction than realism.
Still, the drawings bear the hallmarks of the style which is associated with each artist. To illustrate, an Ingres' drawing looks like an Ingres portrait. You do not need to look at the signage to tell if a drawing was done by Picasso. As a result, the exhibit is a condensed survey of the major ideas in European art.
I found myself spending the most time with the late 19th century French masters. Degas is known for his pastels and so it was not surprising to find several of them on exhibit. But there was also a rare black and white drawing by Monet, the master of color. There are also delightful watercolors by Renoir and Morisot. The innovative works by Cezanne take watercolor in a different direction.
In addition to being an important exhibition for art lovers, I would also recommend this exhibit to those who make art. It is perhaps easier to push back the curtain and analyze how a work was done with a drawing as opposed to a finished painting.
“Henry James and American Painting” at the Morgan Library and Museum explored the relationship between one of the 19th century's foremost authors and several visual artists.
Henry James was born in 1843 into a wealthy family from Albany, New York. However, he spent much of his early life traveling around Europe. When the family returned to the United States, it settled in Newport, Rhode Island but subsequently moved to Boston, Massachusetts. During this time, James developed friendships with many of the great minds of New England such as the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. He also embarked on a career as a writer.
In 1869, James returned to Europe where he would stay for most of the rest of his life. He became a central figure in the American ex-patriot community. And, as documented in this exhibit, many of his friends were artists.
James saw the creative process of the novelist as being analogous to the creative process of the visual artist. In addition, he often used references to visual art in his writings His more experimental later works have been compared to Impressionist painting.
Perhaps the best known American artist living in Europe during this period was John Singer Sargent. James knew Sargent, wrote about him and sat for portraits by him. In addition to a formal portrait commissioned by James' friends to mark his seventieth birthday, the exhibit had a number of more informal works by Sargent. These included portraits of friends as well as a series of watercolors and oils done by Sargent while in Venice. As the signage in the exhibit indicated, several were works that James had known and/or commented upon.
In addition to their connection to James, these informal works were of interest because they showed Sargent's style free of the economic pressures and constraints of his commissioned portraits. In fact, the watercolors were never intended for sale or exhibition. The style in such informal works is looser and more free. The portrait of writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife borders on the abstract. It is much more 20th century than 19th century.
James was also friends with another famous American ex-patriot, James McNeill Whistler. In fact, James modeled one of the characters in his book The Ambassadors after Whistler.
The exhibit had fewer works by Whistler than by Sargent. “Arrangement in Black and Brown – The Fur Jacket” is a large vertical portrait of a woman. Like Sargent, Whistler had the ability to create intriguing portraits of women, using vagueness to create a sense of mystery. James also created portraits of women in his novels.
Not all of James' artist friends are as well known today as Sargent and Whistler. Lilla Cabot Perry was an American who joined with the community of artists that sprung up around Claude Monet when he was living in Giverny, France . Her portrait of her daughter reflects the strong Impressionist influence.
According to the signs at the exhibit, the relationship between American painters Frank Duveneck and Elizabeth Boott Duveneck and Elizabeth's father, inspired parts of three of James' novels. Elizabeth's father viewed Frank Duveneck as his social inferior and so was against his daughter marrying him. The exhibit had Duveneck's formal portrait of his father-in-law, presenting a very proud and imperial figure. Elizabeth died early on and the exhibit also had the tomb sculpture that Frank carved for her.
In addition to the paintings and other art work, the exhibit had manuscripts and letters that James wrote to various artists.
The exhibit presented a unique bridge between the world of literature and the visual arts. Considering that the Morgan is a museum founded upon a library, the exhibit was highly appropriate.
Matisse in the Studio at the Royal Academy of Arts presents a number of works by Henri Matisse along with various objects that are depicted in those works.
Henri Matisse was born into a well-to-do merchant family Northern France in 1869. When he became an adult, he saw himself as following a career in the law. To this end, he studied law and when he obtained his qualifications, he found a position as a court administrator. It was not until after his mother gave him a set of art supplies while he was convalescing from an illness that he found art was his true calling.
During his long career, Matisse's style continuously evolved as he incorporated new inspirations into his art. He began with traditional European art but along the way drew inspiration from the Impressionists, Post-impressionists, African art and Islamic art as well as from the contemporary art of the first half of the 20th century. While his works sometimes bordered on abstraction, they always held a connection to recognizable real world objects.
Throughout his life, the artist collected furniture, utensils, everyday objects and works of art from several cultures that he found visually appealing. Sometimes these objects would appear in his paintings again and again. He analogized them to actors who appear in multiple plays.
This exhibit brings together some of these objects along with the works in which they appear. For example, the exhibit includes two silver chocolate pots that appear in a Matisse still life. There is also an ornate Venetian chair that the artist liked to paint.
At the end of the day, most of these objects are just ordinary objects. However, they are of interest for two reasons. First, they are objects that once were the possession of a great artist and thus have historical interest just as the hat that Napoleon wore at Waterloo would be of historical interest. Second, they show that a great artist can draw inspiration from an ordinary object and transform its image into something that is beyond the ordinary.
Of greater interest are the works of art from other cultures that Matisse collected. Objects such as African masks and sculptures were not so much subjects of his paintings and sculptures but rather things that influenced his style. The influence of the African masks can clearly be seen in his portrait drawings. He has adopted the simplicity of line of the African artists. But, while the African works conceived for religious purposes - did not seek to depict specific individuals, Matissse captured the character of the individuals portrayed. Thus, one can see the evolution of art.
Even leaving aside the juxtaposition of the objects and the works of art, this is still a good exhibit. It presents works from across the span of Matisse's career. As a result, it contains quite a few impressive works of art.
With regard to the mechanics of the exhibit, there were too many people for the space. Admission was by timed-ticket, which is supposed to prevent overcrowding. Nonetheless, there were too many people in the exhibit area when we were there. The crowd made it difficult to study and appreciate the works. This was compounded by having groups of school children laying on the floor around some of the works trying to do projects related to the exhibit. You had to be careful not to step on anyone. It would have been much better both for all concerned to have had separate times for the classes and for the general public.
“Calder: Hyermobility” at the Whitney Museum of American Art is an exhibit of sculptures by Alexander Calder. It focuses on the importance of motion in Calder's work.
Alexander Calder came from an artistic family. His father and grandfather were both sculptors. His mother was a professional portrait painter. Not surprisingly, Calder did art work from an early age and even had studios in the basements of several of the houses that the family occupied while he was growing up.
Knowing the difficulties associated with being a professional artist, his family did not encourage Calder to follow in their footsteps. Instead, he studied to be become a mechanical engineer. Following his graduation from the Stevens Institute in 1919, Calder held a variety of jobs including being a hydraulic engineer and working as a mechanic on a steam ship.
Calder, however, found this work unsatisfying and decided to make art his career. To this end, he enrolled in the Art Students League in New York.
In 1926, he moved to Paris where he established a studio and became friends with a number of avant garde artists. Following a visit to Piet Mondrian's studio, he decided to embrace abstract art.
During this period, Calder became interested in creating sculptures with movable parts. His early works along this line moved by cranks and motors, perhaps reflecting his engineering background.
By the early 1930s, Calder had returned to the United States and his works were less mechanical. Instead, the works moved either in response to touch or to the wind. Marcel Duchamp coined the term “mobiles” to describe Calder's sculptures.
The Whitney exhibit includes several of Calder's mobiles. Some are freestanding while others are suspended from the ceiling. Even when they are static - - which they are most of the time - - the graceful lines and pure colors of these sculptures make them appealing.
At specified times during the day, a staff member appears and “activates” some of the sculptures. Typically, this is done by giving one part of the sculpture a gentle push setting it in motion.
The movement causes the image that the viewer is seeing to change. Whereas a portion of the sculpture was say pointing in one direction originally, it points in a number of different directions as it moves. As a result, the overall shape of the sculpture changes, becoming a new image.
In addition to the mobiles, the Whitney has one of Calder's large static sculptures in the center of the exhibit. These Calder sculptures were dubbed “stabiles” by Jean Arp in 1932 to distinguish them from Calder's mobiles.
With a stabile, the image changes as the viewer moves around the object. In this, the process is not different than traditional sculpture. However, here the forms are abstract - - graceful arches arising from seemingly delicate points.
Over the last 90 years or so, the public has become familiar with abstract sculpture. However, the elegance of Calder's designs, both static and kinetic, are such as to have enduring appeal.
It is not unusual to find an art exhibition on a passenger ship. Most cruise ships have an art gallery that sells prints and original works of art. What is unusual is for a ship to host a preview of an art exhibit that will be seen on land in a major city.
As part of its 2017 Transatlantic Fashion week, the ocean liner Queen Mary 2 held a preview of “Drawing On Style: Original Fashion Illustration.” This exhibition was a preview of a larger exhibition held at the Gray MCA Cheryl Hazon Gallery in New York City.
The preview presented 21 works by 10 artists. It was held in the annex to QM2's permanent art gallery.
Until fairly recently, illustration was a somewhat disparaged stepchild of fine art. In part, this was due to the fact that illustration has commercial connections. It is often used in advertising to sell a product or service. Also, illustration was often used in conjunction with a book or a story to elaborate on an idea or a point made by the author of the book or story. In such situations, it was argued that the illustration is subservient to the book or story and not a stand alone artistic concept.
The old view of illustration lost ground as people came to realize that a good illustration can stand on its own without regard to the product or story it was commissioned to serve. Indeed, at this exhibit, it is hard to detect what fashion designer's conept the works were originally intended to illustrate. It s only by reading the signage that you find that a given work was done for one of the great fashion houses or a well-known fashion magazine. In other words, the works stand on their own.
The works on display were drawings, often pen and ink with a brushed wash but also some graphite works and some watercolors. They were not traditional drawings. Rather, like the Mask paintings of Henri Matisse, they distill the subject matter to its essential lines.
Colin McDowell, fashion commentator and one of the artists whose works were included in the exhibit, explained: “In fashion illustration, you are creating a mood, a feeling and you can do it in very few lines. Elimination, just get the essence.”
In his remarks opening the exhibit, Mr. McDowell pointed out that fashion illustration reahed its zenith with the fashion magazines of the 1930s and 40s, which were aimmed primarily at upper class ladies. As the demographics of their readership changed in the 1950s, the publishers began to favor photographs over illustration in order to appeal to a younger and broader audience. By the end of the century, photographs had all but replaced illustration in the fashion magazines.
The exhibit chronicles this period with examples of works from throughout this period. It includes several works by Kenneth Paul Black, who Mr. McDowell called “the last of the great fashion illustrators.” However, I was most attracted to the works of contemporary British artist Jason Brooks because of the emotion he conveys in a minimum of lines.
It was an exhibit rich in fashion history. But the pictures were not just of interest for their historical value. They were good pictures.
exhibit review: constable and mctaggart: A meeting of two masterpieces at the national gallery of scotland.
“Constable and McTaggart: A Meeting of Two Masterpieces” at the National Gallery of Scotland is a small exhibit that provides insight into the evolution of art.
John Constable was one of the great English landscapes. Born in 1776 into a wealthy merchant family, Constable intially struggled for success but by the end of his life, he had become a member of the Royal Academy and had achieved fame in Britain and in Europe.
The paintings that established Constable's reputation during his lifetime are polished works that follow in the tradition of the old masters. His inspirations included works by Claude Lorrain and Peter Paul Ruebens. However, distinguishing Constable's works from traditional landscapes was considerable emotion. “Painting is but another work for feeling.”
Some of Constable's most successful works were monumental paintings that he called “six footers.” These monumental works have impact not just because of their size but because of the aforementioned emotion that Constable put into his works.
His last six-footer “Salisbury Cathedral From the Meadow” (1831) is on display at the exhibit. The cathedral is seen in the distance with dark storm clouds surrounding it. While Constable disdained the traditional practice of altering nature to create an ideal landscape, he has added a rainbow that is not in the preparatory studies for the painting. Hope for the future after the passing storm.
In preparation for the paintings he exhibited, Constable would do oil sketches. These paintings are much more impressionistic with bold expressive strokes. They were never meant for sale or public display but rather were meant to be references, memorializing a particular scene or a cloud formation etc., for use in a future more polished work. As a result, the oil sketches were not exhibited until after Constable's death. The exhibit contains several of these oil sketches.
William McTaggart was also a landscape painter. He is sometimes called the “Scottish Impressionist.”
Born in 1835, McTaggart was a generation or so after Constable. Nonetheless, he was greatly inspired by Constable.
Constable's influence on McTaggart can clearly be seen in the exhibit. For example, McTaggart's “The Storm” is a monumental work of the size of Constable's “Salisbury Cathedral.” However, the style of the work is similar to the style of Constable's oil sketches with loose expressive brush strokes and impressionistic vagueness. Like Constable's, McTaggart's works are full of emotion.
The exhibit thus shows how an idea developed as a tool by an artist in one generation can be carried forward in a later generation to become the final end product.
“Forgotten Faces” is an exhibit of some 11 portraits at the National Gallery of Ireland by Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Flemish artists done in the 16th and 17th centuries. What binds all of these portraits together is that the identity of the sitters have been lost over time.
The signage at the exhibit asserts that the siters had their portraits painted in order to “mark significant events in their lives, to flaunt their wealth, or to reveal their social standing. All wanted to register their existance in a medium that would outlive them.”
However, because the names and life stories of the siters have been lost over time, the exhibit asks “what is the significance of such nameless portraits?”
It answers that question: “Perhaps their value lies in the fact that they serve as reminders of the brevity of life, and lead us to remember how we want to be remembered, if at all.” Elsewhere, the museum writes: “Ultimately, however, this display of forgotten faces encourages us to consider people's thoughts about time, memory, identity and legacy, and how portraiture provides us with the illusion of permanence in a changing world.”
I found myself in fundamental disagreement with the thesis of the exhibition. The significance of a portrait does not come from the identity of the sitter. The world's best known painting, the Mona Lisa, is a portrait and while people may be curious as to who the woman with the mysterious smile is, who she is is irrelevant. Similarly, Van Gogh's portrait of the postmaster of a small French town is not an important painting because of its subject's identity.
A successful portrait is one that says something about the person depicted such as their emotions and their personality. It is self-contained. All that we need to know about the subject is contained in the portrait. The sitter's name, life story and other extrinsic facts are irrelevant.
A portrait also conveys something about the artist. The image is not a mechanical recreation of how the sitter looked. Rather, it is the person as seen through the artist's eye. It is an image as interpreted through the artist's intellect, emotions and perceptions.
Therefore, if the subjects of these paintings were seeking a form of immortality by having their portraits painting, they achieved it. Some 500 years after their time, people are looking at their images and seeing something of their personality.
The museum at times appears to realize this point. For example, in “Portrait of a Spanish Noble Woman” by an unknown artist, the signage says: “this is a highly controlled image that reveals what she and the artist wanted to disclose about her place in society.” Thus, the work not only tells us something about the sitter but also about her times.
Similarly, in “Portrait of a Man Aged 28”, also by an unknown artist, the signage says: “His youthful hopeful face lends the portrait poignancy.” Thus, it is conceded that this portrait does convey something about the person depected. While the historical facts of that person's life have disappeared, we nonetheless know something about him through the image that the artist created.
The sign, however, goes on: “His anomynity is a reminder that our lives exist in the memories of people we know, and these memories can disappear within a generation or two.” But such a conclusion about the fleeting nature of existence does not really follow from the fact that we do not know the name of the person shown in a particular portrait. Even in a well-documented life, we do not know a person to the same degree as his or her friends knew that person. Thus, famous or anoymous, it can be said that our lives only exist in the memories of the people we know.
Once again, the degree to which we know extrinsic facts about a person depicted in a portrait is irrelevant to whether that painting speaks to us. Everything that we need to know about that person is contained within the four corners of the portrait.
Of course, some artists are better able to capture and communicate something about their subjects than are others. Thus, we find out more about the people depicted in some works than we do from others. The exhibit contains works by some well-known artists such as Veronese and Tintoretto but the works of the unknown artists are often just as moving.
Although a small exhibit of second tier works, “Forgotten Faces” is successful because of the thought-provoking discussion of portraiture.
“Poussin, Claude and French Drawing in the Classical Age,” an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, looks at the role of drawing during one of the peak periods in French culture.
Although France had long been a powerful European nation, it rose to new heights in the 17th century during the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV. In essence, it became the leading power in Europe politically and militarily. At the same time, the arts flourished under the patronage of the French royal court and the ducal court of Lorraine, then an independent nation but later to become part of France.
During this time, French artists often traveled to Rome to study both the work of the ancients asforma well as the Italian Renaissance masters. When they returned to France, they brought with them new ideas that stimulated the native talent. As a result, Paris became a center for artistic activity.
Drawings served three purposes. First, artists often made drawings to capture scenes that they encountered. Afterall, they did not have iPhones. Second, drawing were used to make studies in preparation for paintings and other more complex works. Third, drawings were done as completed works. This was often the case with portrrait drawings, which members of the court collected and placed into albums.
Two of the most important French artists of this period were Nicolas Poussin and Claude Gelleee – better known as Claude Lorrain. Poussin was from France but first achieved success in Rome. In fact, he only returned to France because he was summoned home by the King and then he only remained there for two years. Poussin was very interested in classical antiquity and his work often focused on classical mythology, history and biblical scenes. His drawings were done in preparation for his paintings. The drawings in the exhibit show that he felt free to use a looser style that at time borders on the abstract in his drawings rather than the more precise style of his paintings.
Claude Lorrain also studied in Rome and also eventually returned to settle in that city. Lorrain was interested in nature as a manifestation of the divine. He would do sketches directly from nature but he would alsoDaniel rearrange features in his finished landscapes to accord with idealized principles. I found his more free flowing sketch style more appealing than his more formal finished style.
Poussin and Lorrain are not the only artists represented in this exhibit. We see that other artists were heavily influenced by classicism while at the same time other artists were developing naturalism. In the former area, the style is too cold and impersonal for me. In the latter group, Simon Vouet's Study of a Woman Seated on a Step has an informality that appeals to modern tastes. However, the presence of a study of hand on the same piece of paper reveals that it was only meant as a preparatory piece.
Perhaps the most appealing of the drawings in the exhibition are the portraits. Vout's portrait of his patron Louis XIII presents the sitter as an affable human being rather than a remote monarch. In contrast, Daniel Dumononstier's Portriat of A Gentleman of the French Court is technically excellent but the sitter comes across as quite cold.
One thing that surpised me was the color of the drawings. Inasmuch as the works are nearly four centuries old, one might well expect yellowed paper and faded ink. However, quite a few of the works were done on light brown paper and used brown ink. Thus, they probably looked much the same four centuries ago as they do today.
The exhibition includes more than 50 drawings. Most of these are from the Morgan's own collection but they have been supplemented with works from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and from private collections.
The placards next to the various pieces are excellent. In addition, there is a complimentary booklet discussing the works. I feel this is particularly important because for the general public, this is not a particularly familiar period of French art and the information provided by the Morgan explains its significance. This makes it a more enjoyable as well as educational experience.
“Eighteenth Century Pastel Portraits” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a small exhibit of European pastels. It includes, French, Italian, German and British works from the museum's collection.
An exhibition of pastels is not all that common. Works done in pastel are light sensitive. Prolonged exposure to light causes some pigments to fade. In addition, most pastels are done on paper and paper can fade or deteriorate with prolonged exposure to light. As a result, museums generally exhibit pastels in rooms with dim light and even then only for brief periods. The difficulties associated with such arrangements prevent museums from mounting pastel exhibitions very often.
Essentially, a pastel is made up of pigment and a binder such as gum. The combination is then molded into a rounded or squared stick. The artist can then use the sticks in the same manner as a pencil. In other words, he or she can create a work without using brushes or mediums such as oils.
Historically, pastels were often referred to as crayons. However, pastels differ from modern crayons in that the binder in crayons is usually wax. Pastels are more powdery than modern crayons. While crayons stick to paper better than pastels, pastels are easier to blend and they cover the ground more easily than crayons.
Another somewhat confusing term that you often see is “pastel painting.” A pastel painting merely means that the pastels cover the entire ground. A pastel that leaves part of the paper exposed is a “pastel sketch.”
It is believed that pastels were invented in the 15th century. There is evidence that Leonardo Da Vinci knew of pastels from a French artist in 1499. In any event, pastel portraits became very popular in Europe during the 18th century. People were attracted by the luminosity of the pastels and the speed and ease with which they could be used.
The exhibit presents works by several of the leading pastelists of that era.
Rosalba Carriera specalized in pastel portraits and became one of the most successful women artists of all time. She began by painting miniatures but by 1703, she had mastered pastels. Not long after, merchants, nobles and visitors to Venice were queuing for her pastel portraits. She went to Paris and painted the king and his nobles. She went to Vienna and the Holy Roman Emperor became her patron.
Carriera is represented by a portrait of a young Irishman dressed in a cloak and tricorne hat. The mask that he has shifted away from his face shows that he is in Venice for the Carnival. Proud and dashing, it is the image of a young noble living life to the full in that romantic city.
John Russell was the leading English pastel portraitist. In fact, he was appointed pastel artists to King George III. He also wrote the still inflential book Elements of Painting with Crayons.
Russell is represented by three works. One is a charming portrait of his daughter with a baby. The other two are commission portraits of a merchant and his wife. She looks like the dominate one of the couple while he seems to have the look of someone who knows when he is well off. The signs by the paintings tell us that she was an heiress and that when the couple married, he took her family name.
Adelaide Labille-Guiard was a member of the French royal academy of painting and sculpture. She is represented by a portrait of Elisabeth de France, the younger sister of King Louis XVI. A virtuous and religious person, there have been calls for pleasant looking person's beatification. However, there is always an element of tragedy in pictures of the members of this doomed family.
The images in this exhibit are in sharp contrast to the familiar pastels of artists such as Degas. Rather than strong expressive lines, these works are soft and smooth with no trace of the artists' strokes. Still, they subtlety convey the personalities of the sitters.
Rich Wagner is a writer, photographer and artist.