The Morgan Celebrates Acquisition of the Complete Thaw Drawings Collection
New York, NY—The Thaw Collection is considered among the foremost private collections of drawings assembled over the last half century. It was first promised to the Morgan in 1975 by Eugene V. Thaw, now a Life Trustee, and the museum received the full collection of 424 works in early 2017. In honor of this extraordinary gift—one of the most important in the history of the museum—the Morgan presents Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection.
On view from September 29 through January 7, 2018, the exhibition includes more than 150 masterworks from the Renaissance to the twentieth century. A partial list of artists represented includes Mantegna, Rubens, Rembrandt, Canaletto, Watteau, Piranesi, Fragonard, Goya, Turner, Ingres, Daumier, Degas, Cézanne, Redon, Gauguin, van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, and Pollock.
“It is difficult to summarize in a few words what the acquisition of the Thaw Collection means to the Morgan but ‘transformative’ may be the best single way to describe it,” said Director Colin B. Bailey. “The great range of artists, schools, and regions represented is remarkable. Moreover, the quality of the individual drawings reflects Gene Thaw’s exceptional critical eye—and his keen intellectual curiosity. Over the years Gene’s passionate commitment to the Morgan has never wavered and we can think of no better way to honor him and his late wife, Clare, than to present this exhibition of some of the greatest works from their collection.”
The exhibition is organized in a series of sections that illustrate key moments in the history of draftsmanship while also highlighting the work of artists whom the Thaws collected in depth, among them Rembrandt, Goya, Redon, and Degas.
I. The Renaissance and the Rise of the Artist
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a dramatic shift occurred in the theory and practice of drawing. It came to be conceived not merely as a mechanical practice but as an intellectual one associated with invention. Artists made many more preparatory drawings than ever before, and even the most sketchy, exploratory sheets came to be sought and preserved by a new class of collectors and connoisseurs.
Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was among the leading lights in the new generation of intellectual artists in the Italian Renaissance. His study of Three Standing Saints in the Thaw Collection is one of the treasures not only of the Thaw Collection, but of the Morgan’s Italian drawings collection as a whole. In the later fifteenth century, sketching like that seen in this sheet would become the defining feature of Renaissance draftsmanship, but this is a notably early example, and a rare survival from one of the most important artists of the period.
Alongside the rise of the working drawing, Renaissance artists also created new categories of drawings that were independent pictorial works, and important examples by Albrecht Altdorfer (ca. 1480-1538) and Jörg Breu (ca. 1510-1547) are included in this section as well.
II. Looking at the World in the Seventeenth Century
While maintaining the intellectual approach to drawing that began in the Renaissance, seventeenth-century drawing represents a revitalized interest in both observation and imagination. Often specializing in a particular subject, artists looked closely at the world around them. This naturalism can be found in many genres ranging from Claude Lorrain’s landscapes to Saenredam’s church interiors to Nanteuil’s portraits. The greatest artists of the age, including Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), focused not only on the appearance of their subjects, but also on the emotional states evoked in the stories of these figures.
Four Musicians with Wind Instruments (ca. 1638) shows Rembrandt’s experimentation with an elaborate technique that included pen, ink, wash, and a rare yellow chalk. The lively procession of musicians in old-fashioned costumes seems to celebrate a prominent wedding or festivity. Though Rembrandt’s bravura style suggests that he drew these lively figures from life in the street, recent evidence suggests that he recorded them in the studio by placing models in front of a mirror.
III. Contemporary Life and Fantasy in Eighteenth-Century Italy
In the eighteenth century, Italian artists developed new and distinctive types of drawings. Infused with sparkling light and even, at times, a sense of humor, these works showcase subjects that dance on the edge between fantasy and reality. Artists were also eager to illustrate astonishing views of their cities along with many imagined scenes, or capricci. Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1727-1804) also produced sheets and series of independent drawings, which were avidly collected by a growing number of connoisseurs. In his series Scenes of Contemporary Life, The Picture Show (1791) illustrates an itinerant showman or storyteller with a guitar slung over his shoulder, attracting a crowd that contains both sailors and aristocrats. In this intriguing scene, the showman presents a picture mounted on the wall before him, but it is not clear what it represents or which story is being told.
IV. Artists Drawing Everywhere: Rococo and Enlightenment in France
In Paris and at the French Academy in Rome, drawing was a firmly established element of academic practice, but it also became a valuable tool for artists who worked mostly outside the Academy, such as Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), who produced a vast repertoire of life studies that he kept in albums for future use. These artists grew to prefer natural chalks and the exquisite effects they produced. They developed an interest in the individual and the foreign as well, which can be seen in Watteau’s study of a Persian soldier. Watteau drew A Member of the Persian Embassy (1715) after the Persian envoy Mehmet Reza Bey and his retinue arrived in Paris to pay a visit to Louis XIV on February 7, 1715. Watteau sketched many of the members of the embassy during their six-month stay, vividly portraying their exotic clothing in drawings of red and black chalk. He drew this slender young man with a thin mustache wearing a peaked fur-trimmed cap and cloak at least twice.
V. Visionaries: British and German Romantic Drawings
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, drawing in England and Germany became a forum for social issues and deeply subjective explorations. Artists valued expression over academic correctness. As drawing societies formed, it became common practice to produce, exhibit, and collect drawings. Artists embraced watercolor as a medium and investigated subjects related to literature, philosophy, history, and religion with a particular fervor. As Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810), and William Blake (1757-1827) began earnestly exploring spirituality, Samuel Palmer (1805-1881) and J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) searched for the divine in sublime mountain landscapes or a single oak tree.
On a tour of Switzerland in 1842, Turner traveled the Gotthard Pass in the Alps and made a rapid sketch that he showed to John Ruskin on his return to England: Ruskin promptly commissioned a finished watercolor from Turner, a work that Ruskin later described as “the greatest work he produced in the last period of his art.” The Pass at St. Gotthard, near Faido (1843) illustrates the melting ice that would turn the Ticino River into a torrent capable of sweeping rocks downstream.
VI. Revolutionary Artists
After the disruptive political and social upheaval that followed the French Revolution in 1789, the traditional art world established by the ancien régime collapsed; in its place, new systems, paths, and possibilities for becoming a successful artist emerged. Artists fluidly adapted varied practices and materials of drawing to their individual circumstances.
The prevalence of finished pictorial sheets suggests that drawing was held in high standing. In sketchbooks and independent sheets, Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) explored ideas for his ambitious projects, and Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) produced scenes he would revisit and revise over the years. Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) made incisive and amusing vignettes for his private albums, such as Leave It All to Providence from the Black Border Album (1816-20). Although the caption may carry a sardonic tone, here Goya shows empathy for the downtrodden and an awareness of the larger forces at play in life.
VII. From the Quotidian to the Sublime: Drawing in France After the Revolution
By the middle of the nineteenth century, many artists worked closely with dealers to produce a remarkable variety of finished drawings for sale at art markets and galleries in Paris. Artists were often politically engaged, creating scenes of modern life that were often infused with pathos or humor. In the same era, independent artists like Odilon Redon (1840-1916) experimented with materials and developed a personal and unconventional visual language that rejected realism and embraced dark visions and emotions. Beginning in the late 1870s, Redon entered an extremely productive creative period in which he worked almost exclusively in black chalk. These so-called noirs began to convey an esoteric symbolism, drawing on a broad range of sources and references. The Fool (1877) portrays a figure that has variously been described as an embodiment of intuition, the demon Mephistopheles, and an archetypal fool. It is one of Redon’s most enigmatic imagined portraits. Here, the fool subverts expectations: instead of looking comical, his penetrating gaze and threateningly lifted fingernail appear foreboding.
VIII. Charting New Territory: Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Drawings
Avant-garde artists in France during the late nineteenth century continued to use drawing for more varied purposes than ever: not only did they record observations from life and nature, but they also used drawing to replicate compositions, rework ideas, and produce finished works for exhibition and sale. They drew on diverse media, including modern manufactured materials such as the Conté crayon preferred by Seurat, which allowed for novel effects. Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) in particular used innovative techniques in watercolor and tested the boundaries of traditional materials, while Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834-1917) expanded the definition of drawing: he used thinned oil paint and applied pastel over prints. Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) developed a particularly modern role for drawing: he sent letters from Arles with sketches of paintings in progress to his Parisian friends. In a letter to Paul Gauguin (ca. October 17, 1888), Van Gogh extolled the attractions of Arles and chronicled his progress on one of his masterpieces from the period, Bedroom at Arles, even including a sketch. He described the colors and composition of the painting as well as his intention that it “express an absolute restfulness.”
IX. Modern Forms
Twentieth-century artists continued to depict traditional subjects in conventional materials—as is evident in the portraits of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), the still lifes of Henri Matisse (1869-1954), and the landscapes of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). But these artists also generated new forms as a response to modern life. They reflected new ways of seeing and thinking about space, time, and movement. Cubism perhaps best demonstrates this new approach, as Picasso, Juan Gris (1887-1927), and Fernand Léger (1881-1955) began to challenge the very notion of drawing with inventive techniques such as collage.
This paved the way for artists like Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) to experiment with levels of abstraction and to explore the subconscious and the irrational. Untitled [Drawing for P.G.] (ca. 1943) is an important example of the fusion of primitivism and modernism that characterized Pollock’s art in the first half of the 1940s. This drawing reveals the wide range of his sources, from the masklike figures, mythic animals, and pictographs of primitive art to the imagery and style of Paul Klee (1879-1940) and Picasso. This sheet is dedicated to Peggy Guggenheim, who played a vital role in fostering Pollock’s career. The sheer diversity of his influences—from Native American art and Mexican mural painting to Picasso, Surrealism, and Jungian theory—indicates just how much drawing has evolved throughout the course of Western art.
Eugene Thaw and the Morgan
One of the leading art dealers of his day, Eugene Thaw, who was born in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, initially was drawn to contemporary artists before focusing on major masters of the first decades of the twentieth century. He soon expanded his range to include earlier work, with a particular penchant for nineteenth-century French artists. Not long after his marriage to Clare Eddy in 1954, he was encouraged by his wife to keep some of the drawings for which he was particularly enthusiastic, and their private collection began to take shape.
Thaw acquired these great objects from a variety of sources: from art dealers and their galleries, through fellow collectors, at bookshops, and, perhaps most spectacularly, at auction. A major early purchase, in 1980, was the rare sheet by the Renaissance master Andrea Mantegna that set a record price for a drawing by the artist. Later, Thaw had the opportunity to acquire one of the last significant landscape drawings by Rembrandt still in private hands.
The Thaws first became involved with the Morgan in the 1960s. The relationship deepened during the tenures of Morgan directors Charles Ryskamp (1969-86) and Charles E. Pierce, Jr. (1987-2007). In 1975, on the occasion of the collection’s first exhibition at the Morgan, the Thaws announced that they were making a promised gift of their drawings.
Over the years Thaw has contributed other important works to the Morgan including a superb group of landscape oil sketches which the museum shares with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also gave a collection of early Medieval ornamental objects currently installed in the McKim building’s North Room, and a cache of nineteen illustrated letters by Vincent van Gogh to his protégé, ?mile Bernard.
In addition to his gifts of art, Eugene underwrote the museum’s state-of-the-art Thaw Conservation Center, which opened in 2002. He also endowed two galleries in his wife’s name—most recently, the Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery in 2006. His donation in 2011 helped establish the Morgan’s Drawing Institute, a center for the study of works on paper. In 2013, an additional gift endowed the position of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints.
In discussing his passion for collecting and his gift to the Morgan, Thaw said, “All true collectors want a group of works that reflects their own taste and judgement of what’s best. But critical to this drive or need to accumulate objects that excite the eye and mind, and to put them in order, is also the art of sharing them. I can think of no better place to do that than the Morgan Library & Museum.”
Image: Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Leave it all to Providence (Dejalo todo a la probidencia), 1816-20, black ink and gray wash, Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum, 1999.22.