Published: February 19, 2002
NEW YORK CITY – The Dahesh Museum of Art celebrates the beginning of its eighth year of public programs with its first exhibition devoted entirely to the art of drawing. “French Master Drawings from the Collection of Muriel Butkin” is also DMA’s first collaboration with one of America’s finest museums. The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) organized the exhibition from the collection of a woman who has displayed remarkable taste and foresight in acquiring French Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century drawings of extraordinary quality.
The exhibition, on view through May 18, is especially compelling for those who adore the sensual qualities of works on paper and want to learn more about the processes involved in creating them. DMA is the only venue outside of Cleveland to present this exhibition.
“French Master Drawings” features 59 works – some of the best sheets from Mrs Butkin’s collection, an ensemble of 450 sheets, promised as a gift to CMA. Well-known artists such as François Boucher, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Théodore Géricault, Jean-François Millet, Camille Corot and Edgar Degas are represented, as well as acknowledged masters of academic art such as Hippolyte-Jean Flandrin, Luc-Olivier Merson, Léon Lhermitte and Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier and two marvelous works by anonymous artists.
“I collect drawings, not names,” Mrs Butkin has remarked, and indeed, all objects on display are examples of consummate draftsmanship. Some drawings stand on their own as finished works, while others shed light on their role in the academic process of creating a painting or mural.
Muriel Butkin began collecting drawings in the early 1970s, while her husband Noah was collecting Nineteenth Century French painting. Their shared commitment to the art of this period coincided with a major shift in how drawings and French Nineteenth Century art were appreciated and valued. Guided by her own instincts, Mrs Butkin built a superb collection.
Her unselfconscious embrace of Nineteenth Century drawings, well before it became fashionable, and her interest in all genres and movements offer museum-goers an opportunity to acquaint themselves with exquisite, rarely seen works of art, and to gain a new perspective on continuity and change in drawing themes, techniques, styles and function over time. While most drawings in the exhibition are from the Nineteenth Century, Eighteenth Century sheets also enrich the show.
The Dahesh Museum of Art has grouped the drawings in the exhibition by theme. For example, têtes d’expression (expressive heads), academies or life drawings, and preparatory studies for paintings reflect the working methods of academically trained artists. There are also landscapes, genre scenes, portraits, Orientalist and Neo-classical compositions, theatrical stage designs and decorative settings. Some of the most intriguing drawings are those destined for mass reproduction as book illustrations for popular Nineteenth Century novels and magazines.
Among the many outstanding works, Théodore Géricault’s exquisite “A Man Clutching A Horse in Water,” circa 1816, copying a detail from the Seventeenth Century painting “Deluge” by Poussin, is perhaps Butkin’s most famous drawing. Edgar Degas’s “Four Studies of the Head of a Young Italian Woman,” 1856, expressions of female suffering, adds depth to our knowledge of this famous artist’s interest in emotions and the female figure.
Hippolyte Flandrin’s “Study for the Left Section of Mission of the Apostles,” 1860, a squared drawing, is a preparatory work for the mural in the church of St Germain des Prés, a cycle considered a masterwork of religious art in the Nineteenth Century. François Boucher’s “Male Academy with Wings,” circa 1745-1750, a winged figure on a cloud, displays a forceful drawing style and was probably one of a series of life drawings made as ends in themselves.
A particularly moving preparatory drawing for Anne-Louis Girodet’s “The Revolt of Cairo, 21 October 1798,” circa 1810, commemorates one of the bloodiest episodes in Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. It is an early drawing in the development of the composition and reveals much about the artist’s working methods.
Another drawing with an Orientalist theme is Alexandre Bida’s “Cafe in Constantinople,” 1847. The theatrically composed sheet resembles a painting in grisaille due to Bida’s refined technique. Carle Vernet’s “Saddled Arabian Horse in Courtyard,” 1820, partakes of the animalier tradition in an Orientalist setting.
Closer to home, Rosa Bonheur’s “Return from the Horse Fair,” 1873, recalls the vigorous rhythms and love for horses evident in her well-known painting “The Horse Fair.” Using the watercolor medium, she depicts the draft horses bred for the French military, each bristling with energy and power.
Among the many treasures in the section on landscapes is Camille Corot’s “Landscape (The Large Tree),” circa 1865-1870, which is characteristic of his later work. Using charcoal and stumping for atmospheric effect, the very smudged paper almost obscures a figure in the foreground seated by wildly swaying tree limbs.
A watercolor by his student Henri-Joseph Harpignies, “Dawn-Hunter with Dog,” 1882, reflects his teacher Corot’s interest in figures occupying the scene. “Landscape,” 1860, a watercolor and gouache by the Barbizon School painter Narcisse Diaz, which contrasts shimmering light with dark forest undergrowth, clearly shows how naturalist painters that congregated near the village of Barbizon in the forest of Fountainebleau were influential for later generations of Impressionist painters.
The genre scenes are varied. Léon Lhermitte, who has been featured in two previous DMA exhibitions, is represented here with a spectacularly detailed, multifigure drawing from 1878 in pen and brown ink over tracing in red chalk. It was one of more than 50 drawings related to “The Apple Market at Landerneau,” an elaborate, ethnographically precise painting of the market with peasant food sellers and buyers in Breton costume.
Isidore Pils’ “Young Man Leaning Forward with Outstretched Arms,” circa 1851, oil, wash and crayon, is a study for a begging youth in the now lost painting “Soldiers Distributing Bread to the Poor,” based on a scene Pils witnessed in Paris. The artist’s notes in the left-hand corner lists the name and address of his model in case he needed to be contacted for other work.
Luc-Olivier Merson is presented by two very different works, each spectacular in their own way. The first, “Nôtre-Dame de Paris,” was reproduced as a wood engraving in an illustrated tribute to Victor Hugo that appeared first in 1881 in France. He knew the influential book intimately and created illustrations for the important 1889 edition. He was fascinated with the bell-ringer Quasimodo, a deformed orphan raised in and around the church.
The transept belfry and the two towers were to him three great cages, the birds in which, taught by him, would sing for him alone. Merson had photos of the towers and knew what their actual gargoyles looked like, but preferred to invent his own, even more menacing stone monsters.
It is beauty that captivates Merson in “Head of a Boy Singing,” 1898. This highly finished, delicately drawn head was the final preparatory study for the face of a singing boy who appears near the center of the painting “Music,” which decorates the Theatre National de l’Opéra Comique in Paris. The sheet, pricked for transfer to a painting, evokes a gathering of musicians and singers in the Middle Ages.
In the portraiture section, “Portrait of a Man,” 1800 shows a curly headed, slightly flirtatious or amused gentleman, who may be a French general, rendered with naturalism by Jean-Baptiste Augustin, the leading painter of ivory miniature portraits in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries.
The question of identity surrounds the arresting “Portrait of a Young Man,” circa 1865-75. Originally it was assumed to be Fantin-Latour’s portrait of Renoir, yet that interpretation is no longer tenable. Both artist and sitter are at this time anonymous but may be the same person – this could be a self-portrait. The marked direct gaze and the delicacy of rendering make this one of the most compelling portraits in the exhibition.
Finally, the most amusing image in “French Master Drawings” is a pen and ink drawing, “Insect Ball,” by Jean-Jacques Grandville, 1808-1847, a leading political cartoonist who began to concentrate on fantasy images such as this one of insects amusing themselves at a ball. Blending scientific accuracy with wry humor, this is one of 50 illustrations commissioned for the pioneering French illustrated journal Le Magasin Pittoresque.
Carter E. Foster, associate curator of drawings at the Cleveland Museum of Art, organized and curated the exhibition for CMA, where it was seen from August 26 to October 28, 2001. Roger Diederen, associate curator of the Dahesh Museum of Art, is responsible for hanging the show in New York City.
, a fully illustrated, 160-page scholarly catalog published by the Cleveland Museum of Art that describes each work, is available in the Dahesh Museum of Art Gift Shop for $45.
The exhibition will be complemented by a series of public programs for adults and families held at DMA, 601 Fifth Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets. Each of the following programs will begin at 6:15 pm.
Thursday, February 21, Carter E. Foster of the Cleveland Museum of Art will introduce the collection.
Thursday, February 28, Robert Kashey, art dealer at Shepherd Galleries, will talk about the process of collecting Nineteenth Century drawings.
Thursday, March 21, Elizabeth Finch, independent curator, will lecture on contemporary drawing.
On Saturday afternoon, March 30, Gabriel R. Weisberg, professor of art history at the University of Minnesota, will discuss the drawings on view in the larger context of Nineteenth Century art.
The Dahesh Museum of Art is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 am to 6 pm. Admission is free and contributions welcome. For information, 212-759-0606 or www.DaheshMuseum.org.
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