Thursday, September 14, 2017

French and British Drawing Exhibits - Morgan Library and Princeton University Art Museum

      Poussin, Claude & French Drawing in the Classical Age       

     Morgan Library and Museum
June 16 - October 15, 2017

Great British Drawings

Princeton University Art Museum
July 1 – September 17, 2017 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The English Channel is twenty miles wide at its narrowest point between Dover on the British shore and Cap Griz Nez in France. Two remarkable exhibitions of drawings, one at New York's Morgan Library and Museum and the other at the Princeton University Art Museum, show that the cultural gulf between the two nations has often been much wider.

Great British Drawings, a travelling exhibit drawn entirely from the outstanding collection of Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum, charts the course of British art from its post-Reformation awakening in the late 1600's to the mid-twentieth century. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017) Great British Drawings at Princeton University Art Museum

Poussin, Claude and French Drawing in the Classical Age at the Morgan is more tightly focused, devoted exclusively to the seventeenth century. The Morgan exhibit is overwhelming composed of drawings from its own, seemingly inexhaustible, holdings, with a few loans from the Metropolitan Museum and several private collections.

These exhibits enable us to see the differing approaches to art which artists from France and Britain followed for much of the modern period. 

The seventeenth century for France was the "splendid century." French art during the 1600's followed the centralizing political agenda of Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIV. French painters, especially after the foundation of the Académie Royal in 1648, drew support and inspiration from the ideology of France as the "grand nation." 

The annual award of the Prix de Rome, inaugurated in 1663, enabled the lucky winner to study and work in Italy for several years at the expense of the King of France.The prestige of the award insured that the visual arts followed the prescribed religious and classical themes favored by the Royal authorities. Artists were expected to revolve like planets around the Sun King just as the fawning nobles did at the court of Versailles.

Despite occasional attempts to follow the French patronage model, British art was attuned to the fickle dictates of the market place. The "milords" of the eighteenth century, followed by factory owners in the 1800's, bought the kind of art they liked - pictures of themselves and their horses, especially - rather than what King George ordained.

The Morgan exhibit takes its title from from two of the  greatest French artists of all time and from the classical ideal that was the foundation of their work. Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) both lived most of their adult lives in Italy. Poussin was ordered home to France by Cardinal Richelieu in 1640, but escaped back to Italy in 1642. Lorrain went to Italy as a pastry chef in the 1620's but found he was better at painting. He was not technically a French subject, which enabled him to avoid the suffocating embrace of the French monarchy.

Both Poussin and Lorrain were masterful draftsmen. Their drawings were clearly intended as the foundation for major oil paintings. To modern eyes, the classical-themed paintings by  Poussin and Lorrain can seem dated and unconvincing. Their drawings are another matter.

Nicholas Poussin, Holy Family on the Steps, 1646-48

Poussin's Holy Family on the Steps is a tour de force of integrating human figures in a believable setting. The scene is superbly accentuated with sharp contrasts of light and shadow. And the fact that facial features are not delineated lets the viewer "finish" the character details in his or her own mind. 

For this work, Poussin used pen and brown ink, with brown and gray wash, over black chalk, on paper. Lorrain often used the same technique with equal effectiveness.

J.M.W. Turner revered Claude Lorrain's oil paintings for their masterly handling of light. Yet, even a brief look at Claude's Landscape with a Procession Crossing a Bridge (1645) and The Sermon on the Mount (1655) opens our eyes to the incredible skill with which the limited range of color is used in these sketches.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Claude's Landscape with a Procession Crossing a Bridge

Less is more. What we see in these drawings is the flowering of organic forms over allegorical references. Nature transcends narrative.

We see that too in the psychological insights of the highest caliber in the portrait drawings on display at the Morgan. The artists of seventeenth century France followed in the footsteps of the Renaissance masters, Jean Clouet (c.1485/90–1540) and François Clouet (c.1515–1572). French portrait sketches from the 1600's clearly show a major advance in depicting both facial features and "interior lives" that rival the more famous Dutch achievements from that era.

Simon Vouet, Study of a Woman Seated on a Step..., ca.1630–35

A superb example of character "formation" is Simon Vouet's Study of a Woman Seated on a Step with Another Study of Her Right Hand, ca. 1630–35. Vouet has depicted a human body in motion, a being whose inner self is stirring to life as well.  

Another masterful achievement is Daniel Dumonstier's Portrait of a Gentleman of the French Court. Created in 1628, during the reign of Louis XIII, this brilliant work is the introductory image for this review.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Daniel Dumonstier's Portrait of a Gentleman, 1628

Dumonstier's Portrait of a Gentleman immediately calls to mind Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers. It is unlikely that the identity of this courtier will ever be revealed. But this stunning portrait probes the psyche of this individual with such amazing perception that we feel we know him for certain.

Great British Drawings begins with a portrait from roughly the same period as Dumonstier's Portrait of a Gentleman. Samuel Cooper, famous for his "warts and all" portrait of Oliver Cromwell, sketched this amazing likeness with black chalk and a bit of white accent. In this case, we know the name of the sitter and his identity raises questions of why Cooper lavished so much skill on it.

Samuel Cooper, Thomas Alcock, ca. 1650

At first glance, Thomas Alcock looks like a "plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows." Such men were the field officers in Cromwell's Puritan army. Looks are deceiving.

In fact, Alcock was a henchman of the libertine Earl of Rochester, notorious for his sexual escapades during the reign of King Charles II. An inscription on the back of the drawing records that Alcock, aged eighteen, commissioned the "famous Mr. Cooper of Covent Garden" to draw his portrait.

Vanity of vanities ... plus a little expendable cash keeps the art market primed!

British art followed a gloriously eccentric and commercial course. Many of the influences which appealed to the French also influenced the British. Italy provided a magnetic appeal during the 1700's - when Britons could get there. 

The frequent wars with France, especially the long Napoleonic Wars, often prevented painters like Turner from travelling to Italy. Unable to sketch and paint Roman ruins or Renaissance churches, British artists depicted ruins on their native shore, usually castles. John Sell Cotman, in a bizarre choice, selected a dilapidated house waiting to be demolished.  

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Christ Church College, Oxford, 1832–33

Turner, with an eye on sales chose the "dreaming spires" of Oxford. Watercolor "drawings" like Turner's 1832 view of Christ Church College, Oxford, served as templates for prints, hugely popular with the growing middle class.

British art during the 1700's and 1800's reacted against the marketplace as well as obeying the call of profit. The Ashmolean drawings on view at Princeton include a rural study by Thomas Gainsborough, created as an antidote to his disgust at painting society portraits. 

John Ruskin, Morning in Spring, with North-east Wind, at Vevey, 1849 or 1869

Another watercolor, sharply in contrast to works with a commercial motivation, is John Ruskin's Morning in Spring, with North-east Wind, at Vevey. Ruskin painted this for the sheer love or art and to satisfy his insatiable quest for a close study of nature.

Ruskin, of course, inherited a large fortune from his indulgent father. But it would be wrong to belabor the issue of economics at the expense of Ruskin's empathy for his fellow human beings and for "truth to nature."

One of the great delights in wide-ranging exhibits like the Morgan and Princeton shows is the opportunity of discovering new artists. Great British Drawings includes a stunning work by an artist I had not heard of previously. Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956) was both an accomplished artist and an unusual personality. He was obsessed with spiritualism and "automatic" drawing. Spare's pastel depiction, A Dressing Station, 1919, is one of the most striking depictions of the tragic human coast of World War I ever created. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Austin Osman Spare's A Dressing Station,1919

This stunning work recalls John Singer Sargent's Gassed. Every detail is accurate, from the "thousand yard" stares of the wounded soldiers to their muddy boots. Yet, Spare, who did serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps, never reached France until after the war, in 1919. A tremendous emotional leap was necessary for Spare to grasp the horrors of the Western Front and there is no doubt but that he did exactly that.

Great British Drawings ends on a somber note with David Bomberg's Evening in the City of London,1944, and John Piper's The Abbey from the Churchyard, Arbroath,1982. In this work, Piper conflated the actual architecture of the ruined Scottish Church to achieve a ghostly presence of the entire structure and of its long history.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), The Abbey from the Churchyard, Arbroath, 1982

This postwar work is particularly unsettling. Piper had earlier traveled throughout Britain, recording bombed-out buildings. But this ruin is a long-standing one from Scotland's distant past. Or is it a vision of the future? Is this the fate of all human creation, the point where decay reaches a terminal state? 

If so, it needs to be remembered that new life and new social forms will arise to take the place of what has been lost. And with this will come the "moment" for the creation of great art, a renewed opportunity for artists of vision and merit to make their mark. 

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Images courtesy of Morgan Library and Museum and the Princeton University Art Museum and Anne Lloyd.

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Daniel Dumonstier (French,1574–1646) Portrait of a Gentleman of the French Court, 1628 Black, red, yellow, and white chalk. The Morgan Library & Museum Purchased as the gift of John M. Crawford, Jr.; 1956.9

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017) Exhibition banner for Great British Drawings, Summer 2017, at the Princeton University Art Museum.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) The Holy Family on the Steps, 1646–48. Pen and brown ink and wash, with gray wash, over black chalk. The Morgan Library & Museum Purchased by Pierpont Morgan in 1909; III, 71

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with a Procession Crossing a Bridge, ca. 1645. Black chalk and graphite, with brush and brown wash, on paper tinted a pinkish brown. The Morgan Library & Museum Purchased by Pierpont Morgan in 1909; III, 76

Simon Vouet (French, 1590–1649) Study of a Woman Seated on a Step with Another Study of Her Right Hand, ca. 1630–35. Black and white chalk on light brown paper. The Morgan Library & Museum Bequest of Therese Kuhn Straus in memory of her husband, Herbert N. Straus; 1977.59

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Detail of Daniel Dumonstier's Portrait of a Gentleman of the French Court, 1628.

Samuel Cooper, English, (1608–1672), Thomas Alcock, ca. 1650. Black chalk heightened with white on paper. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, (English, 1775–1851), Christ Church College, Oxford, 1832–33. Watercolour and bodycolour over graphite with scratching out, on paper. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

John Ruskin, (English, 1819–1900), Morning in Spring, with North-east Wind, at Vevey, May–June 1849, or 1 May 1869. Watercolour and bodycolour over graphite on pale grey wove paper. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Austin Osman Spare (English, 1886-1956) A Dressing Station, 1919. Pastel on Ingres paper. 52.1 x 39.5 cm Presented by Mrs. Elizabeth Mitchell,  2004. WA 2004.110 © The Estate of Austin Osman Spare

John Piper (English, 1903-1992) The Abbey from the Churchyard, Arbroath, 1982. Brush in Indian ink with watercolor, bodycolor and colored chalks on paper. 57.7 x 67.5 cm Signed: John Piper  Bequeathed by Robert and Rena Lewin, 2004. WA2006.21 © The Piper Estate / DA CS 2015

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