Drawn to Excellence: Renaissance to Romantic Drawings from a Private Collection.
September 28, 2012 – January 6, 2013
Smith College Museum of Art
[Click on images to enlarge.]
If you wander around Sotheby’s and Christie’s during old master week with open ears, or if you converse a bit at a conference like the delightful and enlightening symposium held for the inauguration of the present exhibition, you are likely to hear some words about the disappearance of good drawings from the market, the ongoing retirement of dealers, the paucity of new ones to take their place, the scarcity of collectors, the resistance of museum directors and boards to these elitist and esoteric artworks, and, ultimately, the demise of the collecting of old master drawings—whereupon the interlocutors stare into space, as if they were on the deck of the sinking Titanic. If this were true, drawings would always continue to be available to the public and scholars, but the heart of the organism would be dead. The circulation of fresh blood—i.e. drawings—would have ceased.
The private collector remains at the heart of the old master drawings world, just as at the very beginning, when these utilitarian objects, used—often abused—scraps of paper came to be appreciated as works of art, on an equal, often superior footing to the precious, finely wrought objects they served to design and make. Already in late fifteenth century Florence artists recognized drawings as works of art they could enjoy and which could provide some spiritual nourishment beyond the purely technical problems of their work. Drawings were tools for the artist and his assistants within the workshop, but when a colleague took away a drawing purely to appreciate it, drawings became works of art to be collected, as antiquities, curiosities, and finished works of art were collected. The story of Giorgio Vasari and his systematic collecting of drawings is familiar, like his use of them as an adjunct to his creation of the Lives of the Artists, as a support for the biographical, historical, and geographical schemata on which he constructed them. As the collecting of drawings spread from artists to their clients, virtuosi (i.e. cultured gentlemen), it became usual to arrange the drawings in portfolios divided into local schools and in chronological order. Very few if any of us experience drawings as the artists who made and used them did. Our relationship with drawings is rather the legacy of the early collectors of the late 16th and 17th centuries and their successors. Hence the crucial position of the collector in our tradition.
A collection of this importance and beauty, brought to its present excellence in less than twenty years, can only be deeply reassuring for everyone who loves the art of drawing, and we should all be deeply grateful for the collector’s generosity in making it available to the public, first, in 2007 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and at the Morgan Library, and now, with the addition of recent acquisitions, at two great academic institutions, Smith College and Cornell University. Smith’s program in art history has long been renowned as one of the best, traditionally grounded in the fundamentals of connoisseurship and history. Hence the drawings are being put to especially good use at the moment. About a month after the opening of this show, a second exhibition of drawings from the SCMA collection opened, curated by Smith students under the guidance of Suzanne Folds McCullagh, a graduate of Smith and Harvard, and a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Since the collection was only begun in 1994, as Dr. McCullagh explains in her introductory essay, it can be understood as a time capsule of the drawings market as it has existed over the past twenty years—not the market of the 1950s, the 1970s, or the 1980s, but not a wasteland by any means, as the consistent excellence of this collection shows, pace our faithful naysayers and their baleful chorus. Dr. McCullagh, who has been advising the important collectors in Chicago for many years now, also stressed the collector’s fine taste, uncompromising standards, sense of the crucial opportunity, and, above all, modesty as the lynchpins of collection’s formation. This is not a collector who needs to coddle an ego with great names—attributions, even if correct, still mocked by disappointing or dubious examples—or one who strives to make an impression by having the drawings restored to the point that they’ve lost all semblance of reality. The collection and the taste and mind behind it is entirely genuine, grounded in personal good taste and guided by scholarship. Another interesting point of McCullagh’s is that the collection began with the 18th century, with a series of commanding head studies, by G. B. Piazzetta, Gaetano Gandolfi, as well as a magnificent and characteristic Annunciation by G. B. Tiepolo. The next year there followed a Guercino Triumph of Galatea, a Correggio study sheet, and three major drawings by Federico Barocci. The sharp observation of contour and surface, the intimate feeling for the action of light, and the strong individual expression of line so characteristic of these first purchases remain typical of later acquisitions, and the 18th century—often a perfunctory coda to the Renaissance and Baroque for drawings collectors—has continually been expanded as a core element of the collection, which includes many of what Georgian or Victorian collectors would have called “capital” drawings by masters like Domenico Campagnola, Bandinelli, Bronzino, Parmigianino, Perino del Vaga, Vasari, Federico Zuccaro, Poccetti, Cigoli, Boscoli, Vanni, Agostino and Annibale Carracci, Guercino, Mola, Bernini, Claude, and Rosa. The 18th century French holdings are especially comprehensive, including all the 18th century greats like Watteau, Fragonard, and Boucher, as well as Lancret, Natoire, Saint-Aubin, Vincent, and Greuze, among others, and on to Géricault and Delacroix. The collection includes some superb Netherlandish and German drawings, but these were omitted at the Smith showing. I understand that the selection shown at Cornell will be slightly different, perhaps including more northern material. Here I shall discuss a few Italian drawings—my own special interest—and let the equally distinguished French holdings speak for themselves.
The exhibition begins around 1500—earlier drawings are close to impossible to collect in any fullness—with a double-sided study sheet of the Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels by Fra Bartolommeo, who is remembered as the prime Florentine exponent, along with Andrea del Sarto, of the classical High Renaissance style, which emerged in the early years of the 16th century, only a few years after this drawing was executed, which was around 1500, just as the artist was about to enter the Order of St. Benedict. There are several other drawings related to the same composition, and there is a finished painting, a tondo, which is closer in style to Fra Bartolommeo’s business partner, Mariotto Albertinelli. All of these are in accord with Fra Bartolommeo’s Quattrocento manner, before he developed the unified, almost gyroscopic contrapposto and compositional system essential to his mature style. Here, as in his work of the late 1490s, there is an additive quality to his construction of figures, and they remain in their own planes, parallel to that of the support. Hence this drawing exhibits the highest development of what this great artist had learned, above all from Piero di Cosimo, who seems to have been his mentor during his apprenticeship in the studio of Cosimo Rosselli. The kneeling angel on the verso is an especially Pieresque figure. Piero di Cosimo, in fact, was most eminently capable of passing on the most advanced pictorial ideas of the past fifteen or twenty years, since he had also been close to Leonardo da Vinci, and of all the Florentines of his generation, Piero had the deepest comprehension of Leonardo’s aims in figure drawing, compositional construction, and the deployment of light in the whole. If any single drawing could sum up Florentine painting of the 1490s, as it was about to transition into the High Renaissance, this would serve well.
Lorenzo Lotto, since his resurrection over the course of the 20th century, has not lost any of his moody fascination. His works are rare, and his ink and wash Entombment is one of the most coveted treasures of this collection. Bearing in mind that the grey-green wash, which gives the drawing its tenebrous aura, was added later and that its original appearance was more like a conventional Venetian pen and wash drawing on blue paper, its sombre, troubled mood is still haunting. A late drawing (c. 1550), a study for the figures in a painting now in the Courtauld Institute, the sheet combines the heightened archaism of Lotto’s final years, an emotivity which drives the artist even to a certain awkwardness of gesture, as well as Germanic the treatment of the turbans. This is surely one of the greatest drawings in the collection.
This strikes a chord with a sheet by another artist associated with Venice and its Mainland, Girolamo da Treviso. In this drawing of Saint Jerome and Saint Catherine of Alexandria Standing in a Landscape (c. 1530), the artist enriched the elegance of his handling of line and wash with the gravity of the saints and the weight and classical, Raphaelesque grandeur of his depiction of them. One can easily lose oneself in admiring the rendering of detail, above all the supremely economical, but discreetly calligraphic landscape.
Especially striking is a head of an elderly man by Sodoma, the Piedmontese artist who settled early in Siena and spent most of his career working in Tuscany, possibly a study for the figure of St. Jerome in an altarpiece now in the Galleria Sabauda in Turin, which is thought to have been commissioned by Sigismondo Chigi for the church of San Bartolommeo alle Volte near Siena and dated on the basis of style to around 1513.
There is also a prime modello by Vasari, with a border recalling in miniature the splendid “frames” he designed for his Libro dei disegni—a delicate, but comprehensive product of his intellect and hand.
From the Baroque, you find find one of the great Mola drawings, a double-sided sheet with two studies for Saint Cecilia on the recto and for the Virgin and Child on the verso. This drawing comes from Holkham Hall via the famous sale of 1991 and Agnew’s. The drawing has been immensely improved by the removal of a strip of paper which was intended to separate the two studies on the recto. As in the Girolamo da Treviso, one can become totally absorbed in admiring Mola’s eloquent, “messy” handling of brush and wash, but above all the viewer is moved deeply by the lyrical presence of Cecilia in the expansive, but sparely indicated landscape, as if Mola had distilled a Claudian eclogue into an epigram. There could be no more telling example of Mola’s many-sided, humanistic sensibility, which embraced poetry and music as well as art and landscape. He shared these passions with his mentor and friend, Guercino, and this aspect of Guercino is represented in the collection by his early, exceptionally beautiful Galatea, a popular subject with cultivated patrons, both as a subject for paintings as well as for opera. (Illustrated above.)
Bernini’s drawings are rare outside museum collections. This collection has a substantial portrait drawing of his, an observant and humane study of an older gentleman, executed à trois crayons.
If the collector has a special passion, it would seem to be for the great Urbinate master, Federico Barocci, as the three important examples in the exhibition attest. There is a transcendent head of St. Francis, impeccably drawn and well-preserved, a study for the Pardon of St. Francis in the Church of S. Francesco in Urbino (1574/76). A double-sided sheet has black chalk studies for a St. Jerome on the verso and a rich drawing in colored chalks of a seated apostle observed from behind for his Last Supper in Urbino Cathedral. The show-stopper, however, is a large, more finished drawing in black and red chalk and colored pastels of the Madonna and Child. The verso bears a study of the torso of a bearded man, possibly for a Flagellation. As Nicholas Turner showed in his brilliant lecture on this drawing, it is not a cartoon or a ricordo, but a working drawing modifying the concept of an earlier painting for its later re-application in another work. Barocci is indeed very well served in this exhibition.
Mr. Turner presented his paper, a elaborately detailed examination of this drawing, which lasted over and hour and was actually emotionally moving in its dedication to the artist and its profound exploration of his working methods, this lecture, as well as the others in the two-day symposium on drawings which inaugurated the exhibition made one rejoice that drawings exist for our learning and pleasure and that I, for one, and especially scholars like Nicholas Turner, have been able to devote much of our lives to the art.
No less valuable was Hugo Chapman’s survey of the career of the British collector William Young Ottley (1771–1836). Ottley’s stamps and written initials are familiar to students of old master drawings, but his life as an artist, collector, and dealer has been little studied, and few have appreciated how great his collection actually was. Mr. Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings and Curator of Italian and French Drawings pre-1800 at The British Museum, has done the work, and he told the colorful story of Ottley most engagingly. (The proceedings had been introduced by Smith College professor Craig Felton, who gave an interesting account of how works of art are used in Smith’s art history program.)
The final talk was Suzanne Folds McCullagh’s account of the collecting of drawings in Chicago, one of the most important centers for drawing in the world, thanks to Dr. McCullagh’s efforts in teaching and advising her local collectors, as well as the work of her predecessors, above all Harold Joachim. The title of her talk fingered the reality of the drawings world: “Rival Partners: The Collector and the Curator.” Museums and private collectors compete for the ever-shrinking supply of old master drawings at auction and with dealers. Every party in this four-sided figure needs the other, and curators and collectors have worked out a dynamic, often ad hoc way of working together with expertise offered by the curator and gifts and loans, especially in the form of exhibitions like the present one. (One often believes that museums represent the height of collecting, but this exhibition in particular should make one reflect. There is not a single misattribution in this exhibition, and every work in it would do honor to the greatest museum collection.) In any case Dr. McCullagh’s historical survey of collecting in Chicago cast a valuable light on this world center for drawings and left one admiring her achievements in a complex ongoing task which requires intelligence, expertise, diplomacy, and, above all, dedication.
The afternoon session consisted of a panel discussion, or conversation, about the art of collecting, Jane Turner, another Smith graduate, who is now Editor of Master Drawings and Head of the Print Room at the Rijksmuseum, Andrew Robison, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Art, and the distinguished dealer, Mark Brady. This free-flowing discussion of the present and future of collecting proved an entertaining exploration of the present-day drawings world from three different perspectives. Is there cause for concern as the supply of great drawings dwindles along with the dealers, who are increasingly challenged by the power of the auction houses and the continually growing value of drawings? Well, yes. For my part the speakers convinced me, above all Jane Turner, to resume the connoisseurship seminars I taught at NYU for almost ten years and to take on an apprentice.
The event was of such consistent quality that I hope it will be published. As for publications, the catalogue, with first-class research by eminent experts, presented something of a problem. The catalogue for this show, Drawn to Excellence, contains entries for only the drawings acquired since the Morgan/National Gallery exhibition, along with a checklist of the drawings included in the exhibition. For discussions of most of these, however, you will have to refer to the catalogue of the earlier exhibition, Private Treasures—fortunately available in the Smith Art Museum store. To reference these you will have to follow a fairly cumbersome numbering system in the checklist. So, if you want to study these drawings in any depth, you will need access to both catalogues. The current catalogue also follows a strange layout, whereby provenance and notes to the entries are placed inconveniently at the end of the volume. Of course they belong with the main entries. This is the one blemish in an otherwise splendid undertaking. The drawings, the scholarship, and the good cheer left one with the feeling that life is good—or at least better than it would have been if all the drawings of the old masters had suffered the fate of the majority.