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Drawn to Greatness


by Kathryn Boughton

Artists were our earliest reporters. With chunks of charcoal and colors drawn from the earth, cave painters gave us a glimpse into the world of 30,000 years ago. But it was not until the 1400s, with the ready production of paper, that drawings came into their own.

By the 15th and 16th centuries, drawing was not merely a mechanical practice but an intellectual one as well. Artists used the new availability of paper and bound sketchbooks to produce personal and exploratory works.

Thus, we have such intimate little sketches as Leonardo da Vinci depiction of his baby half-brother playing with a cat, and Jan Bruegel’s A View of the Tiber in Rome with Ponte Sisto and St. Peter’s in the Distance (c.1594), created not in preparation for a final work, but to record his travels - an early tourist’s snapshot.

This winter and spring, the Clark Museum explores 500 years of master drawings in Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection, an exhibit originally presented at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.

The Clark exhibit opened February 3rd and continues through April 22nd.

The Thaw collection, known for its breadth and quality, charts the high points of drawing from the Renaissance through the 20th century and features works made by pivotal artists at key moments in the history of the art form. The exhibition extends the Clark Institute’s relationship to Thaw, whose 2016 gift enabled the Clark to create the Eugene V. Thaw Gallery for Works on Paper in the Manton Research Center.

“These exceptional drawings, watercolors, and collages exemplify both the eternal power of the drawn line and the innovative genius of the artists who have explored the medium over five centuries,” said Jay A. Clarke, Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs.

One of the foremost art dealers of his day, Eugene Thaw opened the New Gallery and Bookshop in New York City in 1950. Not long after his marriage to Clare Eddy in 1954, Thaw was encouraged by his wife to keep some of his favorite works, and their private collection began to take shape. From 1968 to 2017, he and Clare gave their collection to the Morgan Library & Museum.

“After I’ve owned them and learned about them, I don’t need them anymore. They’re with me, and I can give them away,” he said in 1994.

The Clark exhibit features 150 drawings, including sketchbooks belonging to Jackson Pollock, Francisco de Goya, Edgar Degas and Paul Cézanne and illustrated letters from Vincent van Gogh.

The exhibition, which is organized in chronological sections, also highlights the work of artists the Thaws collected in depth, among them Rembrandt van Rijn, Francisco de Goya, Odilon Redon and Edgar Degas.

Century by century, the exhibit advances the story. In the 17th century, artists, particularly those in the northern Europe, looked for inspiration in the world around them, studying subjects from life and focusing their work on landscapes, still lifes, genre scenes and portraits. Rembrandt van Rijn, for instance, chronicled the world around him, recording scenes of everyday life from the streets of Amsterdam and the nearby countryside. His powers of observation were so keen that the locations of his landscapes remain identifiable to scholars 300 years after they were drawn.

In the 18th century, increasing demand in Italy for independent drawings created a ready market for works executed primarily in pen and ink washes on new varieties of bright white paper. These luminous drawings featured subjects that combined elements of fantasy and reality, often infused with a sense of comedy.

Artists represented views of their cities with pride along with scenes from the imagination known as “capricci.” Giovanni Antonio Canal’s Capriccio: Pavilion by the Lagoon (c.1760) is a highly finished drawing typical of the artist’s late work. It is executed in brown ink in combination with gray wash, allowing the white of the paper to convey the sense of sunlight playing off the masonry.

While drawing was firmly established as part of studio practice in Paris and Rome, it was also an important tool for artists such as Jean-Antoine Watteau, who worked mostly outside of the Academy. Watteau produced a vast array of life studies, including his Study of a Young Man Seen from the Back and a Study of a Right Arm (c.1717) which he kept in albums for future use. Artists often kept such studies as models for finished works.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, drawing in England and Germany became a forum for social issues and subjective explorations. The formation of drawing societies encouraged the production, exhibition and collection of drawings. Artists embraced watercolor as a medium and investigated subjects related to literature, philosophy history and religion.

Francisco de Goya kept sketchbooks in which he drew his private ideas. The subject matter varies from critiquing social mores and poking fun at personal idiosyncrasies to scenes from the artist’s imagination. Some of these compositions reappeared in later print series and paintings while others remained in albums discovered after Goya’s death.

By the mid-19th century, artists were working with dealers to produce an array of finished drawings for sale at art markets and galleries in Paris. Artists were politically engaged, and produced frank assessments of modern life at a time of increasing urbanization. Subject matter included scenes infused with pathos for the working class such as Jean-François Millet’s The Potato Harvest (c.1853).

In the late 19th century Impressionists and Post Impressionists continued to work from life and nature, recording observations and studying figures and the landscape. Artists utilized diverse media including manufactured materials such as the Conté crayon used by Georges Seurat in The Black Horse (c.1882) and Approach to the Bridge at Courbevoie (c.1886).

Vincent van Gogh used drawings - sketches of paintings in progress and descriptions of work and French countryside - in his letters sent from Arles to friends in Paris. Drawn to Greatness features two illustrated letters from the artist to his friend Émile Bernard: one with sketches of a sower and wheat field, the other depicting the Langlois Bridge at Arles.

Twentieth-century artists continued to depict traditional subjects in conventional materials as is evident in Pablo Picasso’s portraits, Henri Matisse’s still lifes and Piet Mondrian’s landscapes. These artists also generated new forms as a response to modern life and reflected new ways of seeing and thinking about space, time, and movement.

The advent of abstraction as well as explorations of the subconscious and the irrational led to highly individual, distinctive works such as Jackson Pollock’s Untitled (Abstract Ram) (c.1944).

The Clark Art Institute, that opened in 1955, houses exceptional European and American paintings and sculpture, extensive collections of master prints and drawings, English silver and early photography. It is located at 225 South Street in Williamstown and is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10AM to 5PM. For more information call 413 458 2303 or click on the link below.