Art / Berkshire Review / Drawings

Why Draw? 500 Years of Drawings and Watercolors at Bowdoin College, May 03, 2017 – September 03, 2017

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John Smibert, The Bermuda Group. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery.
John Smibert, The Bermuda Group. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery.

Why Draw? 500 Years of Drawings and Watercolors at Bowdoin College,
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, May 03, 2017 – September 03, 2017
Joachim Homann, Curator

Catalogue of the same title, available here.

Between the limits of the discipline, as it is taught in graduate schools, and the structure of museological functions, exhibitions of drawings usually adhere to a restricted range of formats, which, while continuing to be viable for institutions and the public and useful for scholars in the field, can be felt as constricting for those who conceive and execute them. The scope of drawings exhibitions can be determined by time and/or place (stylistic categories), or an artistic personality (monographic), or collection (“Treasures on Paper from…”), and perhaps a few others. When a curator is faced with such a project, he may may find himself wrestling with an urge to break the mold and create something new.

While fitting safely within the genre of the “treasures” show, i.e. structured around presenting the impressive drawings collection of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Why Draw? enriches the experience by asking a fluid complex of questions inspired by the drawings themselves—determined ultimately by the aims and activity of the artist, however much the perceptions of donors and curators over the rather long history of the collection may have shaped the whole. Given the rich holdings of contemporary drawings, the personal reflections of living artists play an exceptionally enlightening role in the labels and catalogue, complementing the circumstance that the core of the collection was originally formed by an artist, John Smibert, in the eighteenth century. In bringing this about, the curator, Dr. Joachim Homann, has thought and felt as much as an artist as a scholar, created a brilliant solution to the conundrum mentioned above, ably assisted by his lively team of collaborators and colleagues both within and outside Bowdoin College. The visitor leaves the galleries and puts down the catalogue with a feeling of liberation, as well as enlightenment—an expansion which comes from the art itself, as much as the academic study of art.

I’ll keep the catalogue close at hand in the future, as a reminder that one can transcend the constrictions of art history and museological convention and still fulfill the needs of colleagues, students, artists, and the general public—not to mention the wealth of insights contained in the splendid short essays attached to particular works. This catalogue—which is aimed at the general educated public, not a scholarly audience—is basically visual in format, The reader is led on mostly by the good, large color illustrations, much as a visitor would experience the handsome installation of the show in the galleries. Along the way, beginning with the concise essays by Dr. Homann, “What Compels Artists to Draw?” and Caroline O. Fowler “Drawing: a Universal Language in a New World”, one’s traversal of the reproductions pauses for discussions of particular drawings—21 out of 130—much as Mussorgsky’s visitor to Victor Hartmann’s exhibition interrupts his promenade to immerse himself in the stories told by the paintings. Some of these are the work of art historians, and others are by artists and other creative people. Their rubrics consist of ideas or themes which emerge from a contemplation of the artwork, not the title and creator of the drawing, which are provided only in the caption of the facing illustration. The insight provided by these is exceptional, in that, while documentation is not slighted, the personal observations and responses are so thoughtfully chosen and expressed, that one cannot dismiss them as random thoughts so personal that they mean nothing to a stranger reading a text. Some responses to art come to life only in the context of a conversation with a friend in the gallery; others are best kept to oneself. For the rest of the drawings, there are brief informative entries at the back of the catalogue. And yes, there are some footnotes providing basic but by no means complete documentation and a page of recommendations for further reading rather than a full bibliography.

In a way, these extended discussions function for the catalogue reader rather like the thematic labels which serve to divide sections in an exhibition; here they are rather insights emerging from a single work, which may or may not relate to other works, but are nonetheless significant for the interpretation of the exhibition as a whole. These thoughts interweave and unify the show rather than segregate divisions. Almost playfully, the rubrics begin with a traditional concept in the study of drawings, one relating to the function of a drawing—Ricordo—the final stage in the traditional workflow of workshop production, a process which eventually evolved into methods taught in the academies. And this is the only one of these functions included in the series, although others refer directly to them, for example “Inventio” and “Imagination”, which encompass the primo pensiero, the free rendering of an artist’s first thoughts, as he launches into a commission, as well as “Compose”, which refers to the compositional study, a later, more formal effort to work out an entire composition. From there Dr. Homann and his writers cut loose in their speculation on artistic goals and practices relevant to the art of drawing from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, when the necessities of formal workshop practice are no longer a sine qua non. A drawing, even a very loose, “incomplete” sketch, could be an end in providing a medium for a final artistic statement as valid as oil, metal, or stone. Hold on to your hats! These are “Fashion”, “Warning”, “Preservation”, “Loss”, “Spectacle”, “Confidence”, “Touch”, “Impasse”, “Genius Loci”, “Dream”, “Dance of Forms”, “Teach”, “Choice”, “Starting Point”, “Environment”, “Portability”, and “Subtext”. Although the order of the drawings both in the galleries and in the catalogue generally follows chronological order, it might prove more enlightening to accept this series of words as a guide.

In order to understand the words, however, we must read Dr. Homann’s introductory essay and ponder what he what he tells us. He introduces the essay by giving the traditional topics of the study of drawings their due. He doesn’t deny their continuing interest and relevance, and he reassures us that they will not be neglected in the catalogue. However, in the key paragraph to this introductory section, he affirms that the catalogue “is the result of an experiment.” The primary question he seeks to answer is “Why draw?,” using the Bowdoin drawings as his ground. “Rather than aiming for a coherent and systematically ordered set of reasons that compel artists to draw—a goal that seems elusive, given the widespread practice of drawing—a broad selection of works of art is introduced here, and each is probed for being a record of a directed artistic intervention.” The essays are “case studies,” in which “scholars of art history, curators, a historian, and a poet…explain what individual drawings accomplish. Each perspective models a different way of accessing the information embedded in a work of art and adds a new facet of drawing.” Consistently following this line of thought and the methodological principle that drawings are best studied through empirical case studies, Homann devotes the next paragraph to a series of notes on the old master and nineteenth century drawings in the collection, discussing their character and function—two traditionally linked concepts—from the point of view of what he sees in the drawings themselves, rather than simply categorizing the drawings within their functions in the traditional Procrustean way. Although modern art history emerged in part from the categorizing habits of collectors, works of art are far too subtle and complex for pigeonholes like region, chronology, materials, and function to amount to no more than a starting point for a real connection with them or understanding.

Homann goes on with a similarly open-minded survey of drawings of nature, many of which were made for scientific purposes. In this way Man Ray’s Space Writing (Self Portrait) (1935), a time-exposed photograph of himself drawing with a pen light, can share a paragraph with Michelle Stuart’s “rubbing” of a patch of ground, Little Moray Hill (1973), near Woodstock, New York and William Henry Hunt’s watercolor, Fungi (ca. 1858) a fanatically observed study of mushrooms and a patch of ground, somewhat in the spirit of Dürer’s “Great Turf”. In the same spirit, Homann discusses sculptors’ drawings through sheets by Henry Moore, David Smith, and Joel Shapiro. He then brings his musings to an end with a comparison of Rubens’ study of Dido’s suicide, introduced through its subject, and Richard Tuttle’s own observations on his Untitled (1975). Of Rubens: “The artist’s sharpened pen matches the blade that punctuated [sic] Dido’s heart, as both bring to a single, defining point the lover’s unfulfilled quest and the artist’s yet unrealized inspiration.” Of Tuttle: “Tuttle slices open the paper plane, simultaneously acknowledging the sheet’s materiality and bringing to mind the unseen reality usually obscured by the order that structures our field of vision. A slip of protruding paper casts a shadow, itself almost indistinguishable from pencil marks that double it.” Of both: “Both Rubens and Tuttle conceive of the nature of drawings as moments of suspension—of imminent death not yet achieved, of a shadow not yet identical with its image—a pause for reflection.”

If this exhibition and its catalogue achieve nothing else (and they do achieve a great many things), they bring home the vastness and multiplicity of the art of drawing—its lack of limitations.

Catherine O. Fowler’s companion essay shows how Dr. Homann’s complex vision of drawing emerges from the history of the Bowdoin collection, the oldest collection of drawings in the United States, which came to the College in 1811, with the bequest of its founder, James Bowdoin III. Three of the 141 drawings certainly (as documented by inscriptions) came from the collection of John Smibert (1688-1751), a Scottish portrait painter, who opened a studio, art supply and print shop in Boston in the early 1730s—possibly the majority. He acquired his collection of drawings in Italy while on the Grand Tour. He is recognized as the father of American  portrait painting, but it was another mission which brought him to these shores. The philosopher George Berkeley engaged him to teach art at the seminary he planned to found in a utopian community on the island of Bermuda. Berkeley settled in Rhode Island while he waited for the funds for his project to arrive. When they failed to materialize, Berkeley returned to England, and Smibert remained in America.

His collection of drawings was intended as teaching material for the seminarians. Sight and the training of the eye were in fact important in Berkeley’s thought, as Dr. Fowler explains, and Dr. Homann’s wide-ranging analyses does ample justice to the philosopher’s original intentions for Smibert’s collection.

For Berkeley, the arts offered the metaphoric language by which he described perception…employ[ing] painting as an analogy to describe the formation of visual ideas through light and color. […] Through painting he defined vision […] Paintings exist as smooth and flat objects (like the images in the mind), which are made three-dimensional through the interaction of touch and vision in perception. Painting and the arts therefore held a central role for Berkeley’s educational enterprise as a tool through which to instruct about the formation of knowledge in the intellect.

There was a practical thrust to the goals of Berkeley’s seminary as well. As the British settlements and trading posts expanded over the globe in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries—including America—a crucial need was felt for skilled draftsmen among the variety of professionals who sailed out from England to explore, trade, dominate, and convert—missionaries among them. There was a need for accurate depictions of newly discovered terrain, and, as the settlers took possession of the land, for surveyors to mark property lines. “Bowdoin’s drawings were the substance by which the artist and the philosopher sought to bring the ‘universal’ language of Old Masters to the New World.”

John Smibert, The Bermuda Group (detai). Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery.
John Smibert, The Bermuda Group (detai). Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery.

You can actually see the visual expression of Berkeley’s intent in Smibert’s portrait of the Bermuda Group in the Yale University Art Gallery. In this, Berkeley at the right, gazing high and far with his inward eye, and Smibert at the left, staring sharply outward at the viewer with his highly trained eyes, frame the composition. The group occupy a columned portico which affords a prospect of a New World landscape, looking rather challenging and untamed, in the background. Smibert holds a study in red chalk of a tree rather like those in the landscape. The presence of the two wives and the child in the center of the composition show the future realization of Berkeley’s vision, while the seated John Wainwright, the patron of the undertaking, shown in the act of writing, embodies its actuality, as a record of the historical event is created.

Nothing could emphasize more cogently the importance of the Bowdoin collection in the histories of thought and collecting…and now this fresh presentation and interpretation by Dr. Homann and his team allow the drawings assembled by Smibert to perform something like their original purpose. The drawings discussed in the introduction are enough to unseat our habitual ways of looking at art and at the world. The careful, restricted selection  of sheets from the Bowdoin bequest—based on quality—shows numerous aspects of how Italian, Dutch, and Flemish artists rendered the world and told stories through pictures, beginning a visual journey which ends only in the present moment, with inner and outer visions from the past two decades. In fact, it is the quality and representativeness of the drawings of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries which make this such a impressive, transcendent exhibition. The Bowdoin collection will instruct and inspire anyone who is concerned with the making, sale, presentation, and interpretation of art.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Death of Queen Dido, Pen and brown ink.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Death of Queen Dido, Pen and brown ink.

From Dr. Homann’s warm enthusiasm for the drawing, Rubens’ early (1600-03) The Death of Dido could be taken as the key work of the exhibition. In its economy, vigor, and sense of the moment, it is a classic example of its type (the primo pensiero), medium, and the artistic personality who created it. Rubens’ sense of drama and the feminine, his eloquence with simple means, as well as his classical learning and love of Virgil all informed its rapid creation. And there is a great deal of sex, death, and tragedy in its over 130 companions. Much of the impact of the show lies in the content of the drawings, not only their formal and technical excellences.

Copy after Donatello's Relief of the Miracle of the Miser on the High Altar of S. Antonio, Padua: recto. Workshop of Raphael. Pen and brown ink.
Copy after Donatello’s Relief of the Miracle of the Miser on the High Altar of S. Antonio, Padua: recto. Workshop of Raphael. Pen and brown ink.

There are a great many puzzles in the exhibition as well, including a striking red chalk study, still anonymous, of a standing male figure, who, given the club he leans on, is likely to be Hercules. The earliest drawing in the Bowdoin collection is a copy after Donatello’s relief of The Miracle of the Miser on the high altar of the church of S. Antonio at Padua. It can be attributed to the workshop of Raphael with confidence, since the pen work, especially the parallel and cross-hatching, is close to the master himself. It looks very much like the work of an apprentice who was beginning to master Raphael’s technique with particular aptitude, but not perfection. The artist’s confidence in anatomy seems far from strong, if one compares Raphael’s drawing after a figure in Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina cartoon, or his drawing of the David, both in the British Museum. While the handling of the Bowdoin drawing is rather loose, Raphael’s work in this early drawings is precise in observation and in control of the hand. Nonetheless, the pen technique in the Bowdoin drawing is characteristically Raphaelesque. Raphael himself was eagerly drawing the best examples he could find during his years in Florence, 1504-08. Perhaps he copied a drawing from Donatello’s workshop or a plaster maquette, and this would have been the model of the present drawing. (If there was no such source in Florence, a drawing after the relief itself may have come into the studio with Giovanni da Udine, who would have arrived in Rome around 1512, but that is too late, since Raphael used the group at the far right of the recto in the School of Athens.) On the other hand, this drawing shows the ambitions and methods of Raphael’s Florentine studies in its model. The blank eyes reflect a widespread Quattrocento practice in drawing sculpture, in which the eyes often lack pupils and other details to denote their focus and expression. In other instances the Bowdoin drawings seem to have been worked over to provide expression for the eyes. This could indicate equally well a source drawn from the relief itself, where they are either left indeterminate or a hard to see, or a maquette or ricordo in Florence.

Copy after Donatello's Relief of the Miracle of the Miser on the High Altar of S. Antonio, Padua: verso. Workshop of Raphael. Pen and brown ink.
Copy after Donatello’s Relief of the Miracle of the Miser on the High Altar of S. Antonio, Padua: verso. Workshop of Raphael. Pen and brown ink.

The drawings, which divide the rightmost third of Donatello’s composition between recto and verso are by no means careful replicas of the original. Using both sides of the sheet in a vertical format, they compress the arrangement of the figures to suit. There is also much freedom in interpreting the figures, rendering them in characteristic Umbrian fashion. Especially telling is the child at the extreme right. In Donatello’s relief he leans back almost awkwardly, with parallel legs, as his companion to the left pushes at him. In this drawing his weight is solidly set on his right leg, while his left is relaxed after the example of numerous infant John the Baptists and Jesuses in the work of Raphael’s teachers, Perugino and Pinturicchio, as well as the young Raphael himself. Whoever drew this sheet or its source misunderstood Donatello’s dramatic action. The Bowdoin drawing is thoroughly Umbrian in character, however learned by the artist, whether the young Roman, Giulio, or the young Florentine, Giovanni Francesco Penni, as Oberhuber speculated, or yet another of Raphael’s pupils assistants. In any case it documents the source of an important group in The School of Athens, and it is highly likely that this source, which must antedate that work, was in Florence.

The distinguished group of Italian drawings, all from the Bowdoin bequest includes a powerful red chalk study by Beccafumi and a refined early compositional study by Taddeo Zuccaro, not to mention a characteristic sheet by Poccetti in black and red chalk, as well as an imposing study by Maratta for an unexecuted spandrel in the Palazzo Altieri in Rome. Giovanni Stradano, a native of Antwerp who settled in Florence at the age of 27 and never returned, spending his entire maturity in an Italian context, largely under Medici patronage, is represented by a vigorous and complex compositional study of Christ Preaching in the Temple.

When we turn to the northern drawings, the study of nature enters the field, with a famous, but problematic landscape once attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Elder, now thought to have come from one of the Saverys. This group is also rich in studies for decorative works, a finished modello for a stained glass window by Dirk Vellert and his workshop, a circular “frieze”, most likely from Nuremberg, and an important ricordo of a design for a Brussels tapestry.1

James Bowdoin III’s Huguenot background does not seem to have warmed him to French drawings. Very few exist in his bequest at all, and the one that is exhibited in Why Draw?, now attributed to Charles Mellin, was possibly in a 1791 Paris sale, excluding it, if true, from the Smibert group. A fine drawing in colored inks by Michel Dorigny is important for the very rarity of his work. It came to Bowdoin only in the 1950s, as the gift of the New York collector, Miss Susan Dwight Bliss, who generously compensated for the museum’s lack of French old masters. Still, Bowdoin is not the place to look for Watteau, Boucher, and Fragonard, who were such a passion of American collectors from the 1920s through the 1950s and continue to be judiciously sought-after trophies among curators.

Once we cross over the beginning of the nineteenth century the Bowdoin collection becomes an adventure. It is not comprehensive by any means, but every work shown in Why Draw? shows quality, power, fascination, and instruction.

Mary Cassatt, The Barefoot Child. Pastel.
Mary Cassatt, The Barefoot Child. Pastel.

The extended entries I have mention provide a pleasantly random, but always pertinent and enlightening companion as one makes one’s way through the catalogue, whether they come from art historians, informed literary people, or artists, whose commentaries must necessarily be the most valuable. I especially admired Nancy Mowll Matthews’ incisive discussion of Mary Cassatt’s large pastel, “The Barefoot Child” of 1897. Her rubric is “Touch”, which relates both to Cassatt’s posing of her sitters as well as to the nature of the pastels she has used. Matthews’ invocation of line in its relation to the nature this most painterly of dry media and to the aesthetics of Impressionism—which she illuminates with telling quotes from Degas and Duranty, opens an important field of issues relating to the technical innovations not only of Cassatt, but of Pissaro, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others.

John Ruskin, View of the Porta della Carta of the Ducal Palace at Venice. Graphite on grey wove paper.
John Ruskin, View of the Porta della Carta of the Ducal Palace at Venice. Graphite on grey wove paper.

One of the great strengths of this exhibition as a gesture to a mixed public is the open-endedness of the presentation, both in stimulating visual juxtapositions and in the texts. In her paragraphs, entitled “Preservation”, on Ruskin’s study of the Porta della Carta of the Ducal Palace in Venice and one of the Pillars of Acre (ca. 1850), Pamela M. Fletcher stresses the primacy of drawing in Ruskin’s program for the practise and appreciation of art. There is so much to be learned from her quotation from Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing (1857): “the sight is a more more important thing than the drawing, and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at Nature that they may learn to draw”—aside from its relation to Berkeley’s principles. She also quotes from Ruskin’s Examples of the Architecture of Venice, where he said, “The chief value of the plates will be their almost servile veracity—a merit which will be appreciated when the buildings themselves are no more, and they perish daily.”

John Ruskin and John Hobbs, Pillars of Acre. Daguerreotype.
John Ruskin and John Hobbs, Pillars of Acre. Daguerreotype.

In achieving this goal, Ruskin became an early adopter of photography, both as a collector and practitioner. Fox Talbot himself had pioneered the use of photography as a means of recording and preserving drawings, architecture, and other works. Just around the time he executed the Bowdoin sheet he busied himself—with the assistance of his manservant, John Hobbs—in the small area between San Marco and the Ducal Palace, committed every surface, cranny, or detail that excited his eye to the copper plates of his Daguerreotypes. The Bowdoin drawing is not directly derived from any particular exposure, but every object in it appears in the photographs as a group. Ruskin drew a sheet concentrating on the Pillars observed against the side of San Marco, now in the British Museum, in 1879, almost thirty years after the Daguerreotype it reproduces, and it has been suggested that he used purple paper to imitate the reflective glow of the plate.

From the mid-nineteenth century on, Bowdoin shows its strength in drawings by American artists, although the great Europeans—Klee, Matisse, Picasso—are represented by major works. This is consistent with the Bowdoin-Smibert European drawings, since nothing could be more American than the result of Berkeley’s conscious effort to bring the arts to the New World. The nineteenth century is dominated by academic foundations of the established professional artists, many of whom were trained in Europe, Paris in particular, and the contrast between them and artists who, either through provincialism or a conscious rejection of the academy, worked in more individualistic, even eccentric ways. I must emphasize that these were still professional, trained artists: there were no outsiders in the show.

Alexandre Cabanel, Faith. Black android chalk.
Alexandre Cabanel, Faith. Black android chalk.

The juxtaposition in the catalogue of two drawings, one French, by Alexandre Cabanel, the other by an expatriate American, Elihu Vedder, is emblematic of the academic, idealistic strain in American Art, which set an indelible mark on the Bowdoin collection at its second founding in 1894, the construction of Walker Art Building, an especially elegant example of the Beaux-Arts architecture of McKim, Mead, and White, with its central rotunda decorated by Kenyon Cox, a pupil of Cabanel, Vedder himself, Abbott Thayer, and John La Farge. Cabanel’s drawing—in black and red chalk like the Poccetti drawing mentioned above, is a study for the figure of Faith in his key work, The Glorification of Saint Louis, which, following its enthusiastic reception at the 1855 Salon, made the artist a central figure in the institution. Vedder’s gilt “Nature,” made some fifty years later, is a study for his ceiling painting in the Walker rotunda. Vedder did his best to spend as much of his life as possible in Italy, but, at Bowdoin, his style brought him together congenially enough with his colleagues who had settled in New York and New England.

Elihu Vedder, Nature. Graphite, pastel and gilt on brown wove paper.
Elihu Vedder, Nature. Graphite, pastel and gilt on brown wove paper.

Mary Sophia, one of the Walker sisters, who endowed the museum named after their father, bequeathed another drawing key to the art and culture of the American Renaissance, John La Farge’s “Meditation of Kuwannon” (ca. 1886), related to a project which resulted from his close friendship with one of the great intellectual figures of late-nineteenth century America, Henry Adams. Devastated by the suicide of his wife, Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams, Henry sought consolation in Eastern philosophy and religion. He (not Augustus Saint-Gaudens as stated in the catalogue) invited La Farge to accompany him on a trip to Japan in search of aesthetic and spiritual enlightenment. They were both drawn to the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion, known to them as Kuwannon, and La Farge translated the Japanese image of the deity into western, subtly feminized form in this watercolor, the basis of the shrouded bronze figure made famous in the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, DC. When Henry Adams commissioned the sculpture from Augustus Saint-Gaudens, he sent him to La Farge for advice on iconography. La Farge’s watercolor is important not only for this, but as a document of La Farge’s introduction to Japanese art and religion. He was to set his experience down in a book, An Artist’s Letters from Japan, and his continuing promotion of his own American brand of japonisme.

John La Farge, Meditation of Kuwannon. Watercolor on off-white wove paper.
John La Farge,
Meditation of Kuwannon. Watercolor on off-white wove paper.


Augusta Saint-Gaudens, Adams Memorial, Bronze.
Augusta Saint-Gaudens, Adams Memorial, Bronze.

Apart from this exemplary representation of art as a facet of American mandarin culture, a single, most enjoyable and fascinating sheet, “Illustrated Dictionary” (1840-68, aka “12943 Objects on this card in 1883”), donated only a few years ago by Marjorie B. and Martin Cohn (2010), illustrates an eccentric strain in American art—not outsider art, since the artists were indeed professionals, if not as artists, in some related field, like calligraphy. Cyrus William King taught drawing and ran a studio in Portland beginning in 1852 until sometime before 1858, when he moved to Brunswick with his family and entered Bowdoin College Medical School. He only remained at the school for one year, but he remained in Brunswick with his family for the rest of his life, occupying himself with designing educational devices for the college.

Cyrus William King, Illustrated Dictionary. Graphite with touches of black and brown ink on tan wove paper.
Cyrus William King, Illustrated Dictionary. Graphite with touches of black and brown ink on tan wove paper.

He came from a distinguished family. His father, William King, amassed considerable wealth, first in lumber, then in shipbuilding and real estate, earning the sobriquet, “the sultan of Bath.” If William had little formal education, it was by choice, not because of family circumstances. His father, Richard King of Scarborough, had gotten rich in the lumber business, and his brother, Cyrus attended Harvard Law School and enjoyed a distinguished legal career, while William went to work in a lumber mill and built his own fortune from there. He became active in politics and, as the prime mover behind Maine’s secession from Massachusetts and statehood in 1820, he became its first governor. He served as a trustee of both Bowdoin and Colby Colleges. He was known as a colorful man of powerful intellect and ability. His son Cyrus was born in 1819.

Cyrus William King, Illustrated Dictionary (detail), Graphite with touches of black and brown ink on tan wove paper.
Cyrus William King, Illustrated Dictionary (detail), Graphite with touches of black and brown ink on tan wove paper.

A childhood memoir leaves a vivid impression of Cyrus’ temperament:

…the boy was a little hero of ten summers. I know not if he still lives. “Cyrus William” was his name. He loved to sport about the fields with us, and I just as much supposed that he was a young governor as that his father was the old one, especially when he used to tell me about his studying Latin, and living in such style at home. I remember distinctly of his saying he had already got through with the liber primus, although such a name I had never heard before. If I mistake not he had a little touch of aristocracy in his young heart, but it was of the most genteel cast. However, it was said he laid that foible aside. This is the artist, who painted a panorama of the beautiful Kennebec,2 taking more delight in art than politics.3

Not much later, clouds appeared in young Cyrus’ life. His father sent him to the School for Moral Discipline in South Boston, where, at the age of nineteen, he showed signs of emotional problems and a capacity for troublemaking.4 Following Laura Fecych Sprague’s essay (“Spectacle’) it may be surmised that it was at this school that his talent for drawing was first recognized.

The “Illustrated Dictionary” contained tiny drawings of approximately 13,000 objects on a 12 x 15 inch sheet, many based on illustrations in a copy of the Third Edition (1797) of the Encyclopedia Britannica which he owned. A possibly modified version of the drawing, as it was at the time, was published in the January 1853 issue of Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion as “a very extraordinary and ingenious puzzle scene…designed for us by Lieut. Kin, of the United States Revenue Service.”5  King displayed the drawing in his Portland studio and later, in 1868, at the Sagadahoc Architectural and Horticural Exhibition, where it was enthusiastically reviewed in a Boston newspaper.  The drawing was photographed and copyrighted in 1874.6Cyrus King, Puzzle. from Gleason's Illustrated Drawing-room Companion, January 1853. Cyrus King, Puzzle. from Gleason’s Illustrated Drawing-room Companion, January 1853.[/caption]

I thought it best to discuss a few drawings in some detail, which leaves a great many unmentioned, and this review is already long. The American drawings go on, with outstanding sheets from Sargent, the Ashcan School (Bellows, Henri, Sloan, Prendergast, Hopper), Marguerite and William Zorach, Burchfield, Rockwell Kent, Marin, Hartley, and Dove. Émigrés to the United States include Nadelman, Bluemner, Ossorio, Gorky, Roszak, and Hesse. Jacob Lawrence’s “The Schomburg Library” (ca. 1946) shows his sense of design, characterization, mood, and social commentary at its height (Yes, let’s think of this in the context of Berkeley’s dream!), and I was especially struck by Lois Mailou Jones’ “A Student at Howard” (1947), with its strong sculpted contours and vivid array of flesh tones.

Jacob Lawrence, The Schomburg Library (ca. 1946). Blue ink on paper.
Jacob Lawrence, The Schomburg Library
(ca. 1946). Blue ink on paper.
Lois Mailou Jones, A Student at Howard, 1947. Watercolor over graphite on off-white wove paper.
Lois Mailou Jones, A Student at Howard, 1947. Watercolor over graphite on off-white wove paper.

The great Europeans are also represented with important works: Picasso, Mirò, Klee, Matisse, Moore, and Giacometti. American postwar abstraction appears in drawings of the highest quality—works by Diller, Kline, Smith, as well as an artist whose work I especially like and think should be better known, Myron Stout. The draftsmanship of the most recent decades is brilliantly represented in social commentary, calligraphy, portraiture, and abstraction.

Natalie Frank, The Maiden without Hands, V. Chalk and pastel on paper.
Natalie Frank, The Maiden without Hands, V. Chalk and pastel on paper.

A series of narrative drawings by Natalie Frank, The Maiden without Hands (2011-14), derived from a story in the collection of the Brothers Grimm, closes the show with a haunting, powerful journey through a woman’s subconscious through the dangerous conveyance of the fairy tale. Technically these drawings are impressive in their use of chalk and pastel, providing an illuminating continuation of the technical qualities of the Cassatt mentioned above.

This all leads back to Dr. Homann’s germinal question: “Why draw?” Some of us may find the question easy to answer in some cases and difficult in others. Others will find that other drawings in the show invite different responses. The longer I study art, the more I find such questions ad hoc affairs, and I’m not sure whether there is more to be learned in problematizing an artwork and its genesis or in simply accepting the obvious and moving forward. In the case of the old masters at Bowdoin, drawing was a technical function related to the training and coordination of a team of workshop assistants, or of working with a patron, or with executants in another medium altogether, for example weavers or workers in stained glass. In spite of the radical shrinkage of the aesthetic and method of academic art over the past two centuries, it still flourishes in certain quarters. A peculiar variant appears most famously in the glasswork of Dale Chihuly, for which Chihuly creates an aesthetically potent, but impractically vague drawing, when taken in procedural terms, to communicate his concept to fully-trained artists of equal if not stronger creative powers to render in the finished medium. (Curiously, the relationship between the drawing and the finished sculpture is analogous to La Farge’s “Kuwannon”, although he may well have been unaware that his watercolor would lead to a monumental bronze and that Augusta Saint-Gaudens would be its creator.)

Meanwhile Chihuly’s drawings prove salable as well and join the glassworks in his galleries. Another question not explored in the exhibition is the marketing strategy perfected by Leo Castelli: when his major artists showed their work every few years, the paintings, mostly pre-sold to museums and top collectors, were accompanied by “lines” of drawings and prints, which were more available and affordable for smaller buyers down the food chain. The subtle, deceptively complex drawing by Joel Shapiro should be considered in the context of his sculpture, and how it might come to life in a dealer’s exhibition, where they are presented together as new work.

For me personally, the question “Why draw?” has posed itself over the years as “Why draw?”, that is, “Why draw beautifully?” or “Must and artist work like an artist throughout the creative process?” We hardly ever find a drawing that is not beautiful in some way, even if it is harsh and depicts something ugly. The applies as much to Georg Grosz’s “Alone (a); The Stroller (b)” as to Natalie Frank’s horrific, but beautifully rendered visions. The only drawing in the exhibition I had trouble making myself look at was Robert Arneson’s self-portrait. His rendering, through his distorted face, of his experience of being possessed by disease is, unlike much of his work, ineluctably repulsive. Otherwise, of all the great artists, Michelangelo is the only one who comes to mind who made drawings in which there was no desire to make the work beautiful, and these usually concerned the practical matter of fitting a projected sculpture to a block of marble. The drawings required in the Renaissance workshop to construct a finished work each had their specific function in the workflow, but each drawing turns out to be a work of art in its own right. Constrained by materials and function to an effect quite different from the finished work, even in the modello or cartoon, the series of drawings became an ongoing series of rehearsals for the finished work, rather like the work of twentieth and twenty-first century artists who may want to prepare a work, but have no need for the traditional studio process.

John Walker, Botanical gardens, Sydney.
John Walker, Botanical gardens, Sydney.

A small exhibition of drawings by local artist, John Walker (born in the UK), of plants he observed in the Sydney Botanical Garden in 2012, with the commentary of a video interview with the artist provided a vivid and immersive coda.

This exhibition has now closed, but can be enjoyed in its catalogue, Why Draw? 500 Years of Drawings at Bowdoin College, as you read it, in addition to Marjorie Cohn, you will notice the names of two other notable scholar-collectors in the credit lines, “Bequest of David P. Becker Class of 1970” and “Gift of George and Elaine Keyes.” Marjorie Cohn retired in 2005 as Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, previously a conservator, who served as director of the Center for Conservation and Technical Studies (now the Straus Center for Conservation) at Harvard. David Becker, after his graduate from Bowdoin, enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Fine Arts at Harvard, where he studied with Ms. Cohn, Konrad Oberhuber and others. Until the tragically early end of his life, he assembled a distinguished collection of drawings and prints, many of which were bequeathed to Bowdoin. He was the author of a scholarly catalogue, Old Master Drawings at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, 1985—still in print, order here. George Keyes is Curator Emeritus of European Paintings at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Since his retirement to Maine, he has enriched the Bowdoin collection with numerous, drawings paintings, and prints with admirable scholarship and taste.

The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe, an important exhibition of memento mori, macabre remainders of the inevitability of death, remains on view until November 26, and makes a trip up to Brunswick worthwhile from any distance.

  1. One might think that the damage around the central fold of the paper, the mark of the line on which the sheet was hung to dry, would support the interpretation of the drawing as a ricordo, folded and kept in an album, but, of the other drawings in the series, the Yale Triumph of Lust, shows no similar marks.
  2. i.e. his view of Bath, which was lithographed by Thayer & Co. of Boston (1845).
  3. Maine Historical and Genealogical Recorder, Vol 1, 1884, p. 97.
  4. Letter, Rev. E.M.P. Wells to William King, September 18, 1838.
  5. Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, Vol. 3, p. 413. At its publication it was described as “A CURIOUS PICTURE. On the opposite page we give our readers the puzzle which we promised them, in our last paper. It will require hours of study and patience to underhand all its hidden meanings. Any one who will send us a key to the puzzle, shall receive a year’s subscription to the Pictorial in return. Scarcely can the eye rest on the engraving, even for a moment, without discovering some new feature. This is not to be wondered at, since it contains some five hundred different objects, formed by viewing the picture in different ways. Look out for the key in our next number.(Editor’s note. I have not yet had the leisure to work through the puzzle and will not consult the key until I have given it my best, The February 1853 issue of Gleason’s Pictorial is available here, if you are unwilling to brave the challenge.
  6. This photograph is now in the collection of the New Hampshire Historical Society,Concord, NH.}

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