Published: May 25, 2004
Exquisite draftsmanship and masterful watercolors by British artists spanning three centuries of artistic development in England are at the heart of an exhibition that recently launched the reopening of the Taft Museum of Art. The event follows a major 21/2-year renovation and expansion effort.
“To Observe and Imagine: British Drawings and Watercolors, 1600-1900,” a collection of 101 drawings and watercolors from the Morgan Library in New York City, ranges from works inspired by imagination and nature, including landscapes, portraits, figure studies, architecture, literary illustrations and still life. Fifty-three artists are represented.
Beginning in the early Seventeenth Century, the exhibition opens with foreign-born artists, such Sir Peter Lely (Dutch, 1618-1680) and Wencelaus Hollar (Bohemian, 1607-1677). Hollar dominated the art scene in England with his influence on native artists and the emergence of a distinctive English style. Among the drawings featured are Hollar’s pen and ink “Large View of Passau” and Lely’s sensitive chalk rendering, “Portrait of a Lady.”
Hogarth was crucial in establishing an English school of painting in conjunction with Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). Reynolds’ intellectual approach to art eventually established him as president of the Royal Academy. A sketchbook used by Reynolds while he was in Rome in 1750 will be among the works on view.
From the mid-Eighteenth to the mid-Nineteenth Century, landscape was the subject of choice for many artists. Alexander Cozens (about 1717-1786) and his son John Robert (1752-1797), Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837) are among those represented. Turner, in particular, became the acknowledged leader of the landscape school. His early watercolor “View of Dunster Castle from the Northeast” exemplifies his work during the 1790s.
As he developed as a colorist, he applied washes in layers to suggest depth and atmosphere, a transition he achieved in “The Pass at Faido,” one of the more arresting images in the show, according to Cara Dufour Denison, curator of drawings and prints at the Morgan. In this work, Turner focuses the viewer’s attention on the rush of water over rocks as well as the merging of sky and mountains, giving form to the concept of the sublime. “The development of the British watercolor adds to the visual appeal of the exhibition. I think viewers will find it very accessible due to the color and subject matter,” says Denison. Additional Turner watercolors from the Taft’s permanent collection will be on view in its Keystone Gallery.
By 1850, the watercolor movement had reached its climax. Soon after, the pre-Raphaelites changed the course of British art. The exhibition concludes with several outstanding works by this group of artists, including John Ruskin (1819-1900), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Several pre-Raphaelite works were acquired by the Morgan Library because of their connection to book illustrations. The glorious “Study for the Flora Tapestry” is a joint effort by Burne-Jones and William Morris, who collaborated in textile design. Rossetti’s “Portrait of Mrs William Morris, nee Jane Burden” and a selection of Burne-Jones’ literary illustrations are also on view.
While many of the artists represented in the show focused on careful observations of nature, Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), William Blake (1757-1827) and Samuel Palmer (1805-1881) are among those who were more attracted to the imaginary realm. “Mirth,” a colorful, watercolor by Blake, depicts his visionary style. A selection of his watercolors for the Book of Job and John Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Pensiero are on view.
The exhibition, organized by the Morgan Library as part of its “Faces of the Morgan” series, is touring the country while the library undergoes an extensive expansion and renovation project. Denison explains, “This show was originally planned to highlight the library’s growing collection of British drawings. British drawings were the first drawings acquired by Pierpont Morgan, who acquired William Blake’s 21 illustrations to the Book of Job as early as 1903. A few years later, he acquired more drawings by Eighteenth Century British artists, such as Hogarth, Wilson and, above all, Gainsborough. During the last 30 years, British drawings have been the fastest growing group in the library’s collection of drawings, increasing the size of our holdings of British drawings four times.”
The Morgan Library houses some of the finest collections of works on paper in the country. Ranging from studies and sketches to finished works, the nearly 15,000 drawings, prints and other works in the collection span the Fourteenth through Twentieth Centuries. Although the collection is richest in European drawings executed before 1825, most major schools and periods are represented. The holdings include works by Degas, Durer, Matisse, Pontormo, Rubens and Watteau, along with the largest group of etchings by Rembrandt in the United States.
In connection with the exhibition, the Taft Museum’s permanent collection offers additional viewing of works by Turner, Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), whose painting “Edward and William Tomkinson” is on view. The exhibition features a group of portrait and landscape drawings that demonstrate Gainsborough’s range and brilliant draftsmanship, particularly his alluring “Study of a Lady,” worked in black and white chalk.
“In conjunction with the show, people will get a good sense of British art history,” says Tamera Lenz Muente, communications specialist with the Taft Museum. “It’s a good educational opportunity.”
Built in 1820, the Taft Museum of Art, a National Historic Landmark, is known as one of the finest small art museums in America. The Federal period building holds nearly 700 works of art, including European and American painting by masters such as Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Sargent, Turner, Halls and Whistler; Chinese porcelains; and European decorative arts, featuring an extensive collection of French Renaissance Limoges enamels and watches; and American furniture. Along with one of the finest collections of Barbizon and French landscape paintings in America, the Taft has also assembled an impeccable collection of Chinese porcelain and their medieval and later works of art are of international importance.
Named after former owners, Martin Baum, Nicholas Longworth, David Sinton and Charles and Anna Taft, the former Baum-Longworth-Taft House is one of Cincinnati’s oldest wooden structures and is considered one of the finest examples of Federal architecture in the Palladian style in the country. Longworth, a former art patron and abolitionist, extensively redecorated the interiors, and around 1850 hired AfricanAmerican artist Robert S. Duncanson to paint landscape murals in the foyer. Duncanson was one of the first African American artists to achieve international success, and his Taft murals are considered one of the finest suites of domestic murals dating from before the Civil War.
The Tafts bequeathed their home and private art collection to the people of Cincinnati in 1927. After extensive remodeling, the house opened up as the Taft Museum in 1932.
The recent renovation effort took nearly $22.8 million to complete. Director Phillip C. Long explains, “The existing facility was in need of upgrade, expansion and important amenities to accommodate the increasing numbers of visitors to the museum. This project enables us to achieve a stronger presence in Cincinnati and, indeed, to continue to serve as one of the nation’s most prestigious fine arts institutions. Not only will the Taft Museum of Art retain its traditional aesthetic appeal and character, but the conserved and expanded facility will have an even greater importance as one of our region’s most renowned cultural attractions and historic treasures.
The Taft Museum enlisted Ann Beha Architects (ABA) of Boston, renowned for its work on historic buildings, including the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tenn. “The Taft Museum of Art is one of America’s cultural treasures and unique among museums of this caliber, in that the museum itself is one of the most valuable artifacts in the collection,” said Ann Beha. “Our task was to preserve and enhance the domestic feeling of this extraordinary museum while accommodating the needs of a world-class collection. Our goal has been to extend the museum’s architectural scale and traditions while providing a contemporary setting for its programs and services.”
Conservation and restoration included maintenance upgrades, office expansions and additions to educational programming. In addition, the permanent collection galleries were refurbished with historically inspired wall colors, draperies and carpeting tracing the evolution of American interior design between 1820 and 1920.
During the closure, select works traveled to the J. Paul Getty Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Seattle Art Museum. Nearly 100 works from the Taft permanent collection were on view for a year at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
“To Observe and Imagine” runs through August 15 at the Taft Museum of Art, 316 Pike Street. For information, 513-241-0343 or www.taftmuseum.org.
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