Learning from Old Master Drawings

by James F. Cooper

Raphael, Study of Soldiers from the Conversion of Saul

Magnificent private collections of European old master drawings were recently exhibited at two great venues for such rare and delicate works, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Pierpont Morgan Library & Museum, both in New York City. “Raphael to Renoir,” at the Met, is the first comprehensive exhibition of drawings from the private collection of Jean Bonna of Geneva, Switzerland. Ranging through 500 years of art history from the Renaissance to 1900, the Bonna Collection represents a rich diversity of art from Italy, Northern Europe and France, with rare masterpieces by Raphael, Parmigianino, Goya and Ingres. There is also a choice smattering of early modernist sketches by Degas, Gauguin and van Gogh.
The selection at the Morgan Library seems more modest, only because this, the fifth installment of drawings donated by the collector Eugene Thaw, represents works acquired since 2002. Thaw has already donated more than one hundred works to the Morgan, documented in handsome catalogues. While both collections focus on the old masters, Thaw has made some forays into the twentieth century. Thaw’s formal association with the Morgan Library & Museum began in 1968. Over the years, he had many opportunities to transfer his vast collection of works on paper to a major art museum. He chose the Morgan because of its focus not only on artistic excellence, but on the intimate artwork that gives us a glimpse of the artist’s mind. A promised gift to the Morgan, the Thaw Collection presently numbers more than 400 masterpieces. Initial gifts of eighteenth-century Italian drawings led to the Morgan’s first exhibition of the Thaw Collection in 1975. Subsequently, the Thaws decided it would be more satisfying to collect for one institution, or as Eugene Thaw put it, to “hitch myself to the Library’s star,” and they promised their entire collection to the Morgan. Since then, the collection has more than tripled in size and has greatly expanded in scope. In 1991, Thaw made possible the dedication of the Morgan’s Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery and, with a generous gift of $10 million in 1999, he transformed the Morgan’s conservation lab into the world-class Thaw Conservation Center, which occupies the entire 5,600-square-foot fourth floor of the historic Morgan House.

For many centuries, the primary objective of drawing was a process of problem-solving. Raphael’s Study of Soldiers, (c. 1615–16) from the Bonna Collection, is a preparatory sketch for the Conversion of Saul, one of ten tapestries from the Acts of the Apostles, intended to decorate the lower register of the Sistine Chapel walls. Study of Soldiers explores only a small fraction of the design structure of the final woven tapestry, which now hangs in the Vatican Pinacoteca. The drawing was not intended as a finished work of art; the three figures are seen reversed in the final tapestry. But early on, according to its well-documented provenance, Study of Soldiers became a prized possession, belonging to several titled families over the next several centuries, until purchased by Jean Bonna in 1998. There are numerous good copies by Raphael’s assistants and other admiring artists. In 1972, the Bonna sketch was validated because it, alone of the contenders, revealed beneath the red-chalk drawing an almost imperceptible indent in the paper, caused by the pointed metal stylus Raphael used to block in the overall forms. Numerous drawings by Raphael exhibit such preliminary stylus underdrawings, undiscernable to the naked eye. The conclusion that no copyist would attempt to reinvent entirely a preliminary layer of stylus work, intended to remain invisible, provided the final proof of authenticity. One of the most successful copies, now attributed to Guilio Romano, once belonged to Queen Christina of Sweden and today hangs in the Teylers Museum, Haarlem. Comparing the two drawings, we can see that the Romano drawing, a near-masterpiece in its own right, is slightly overworked in the details of the three figures, which detracts from the overall cohesion of the composition. Although it is a preparatory sketch, created solely as an exploratory aid for the artist’s final plan, Raphael’s drawing possesses remarkable formal qualities of composition, tone, line and chiaroscuro. Beyond the scholarship lies the viewer’s immediate sensory experience of a great work of art. Paradoxically, it is frequently in drawings, rather than more finished works, that the enlightened eye takes it greatest pleasure. Ingres’s monumental murals devoted to religious and civic themes seem overblown and labored, compared to the delicate graphite portraits he dashed off in an hour or two.

In the Thaw exhibition are a pair of remarkable graphite portraits of a newly married couple by Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres (1780–1867), executed shortly after he returned from Italy in 1825. (Ingres was in disgrace after the humiliating rejection of his overly flattering 1806 portrait Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne, depicting the Emperor as the Roman god Jupiter.) Adolphe-Marcellin Defrense and his young bride, Sophie, shared Ingres’s great love of music. The pleasant-faced young man is shown leaning nonchalantly against a tall writing desk with a feathered quill in his writing hand. His elegant manner and dress reflect his recent appointment as a knight of the Legion d’Honneur, an honor that Ingres himself would receive the following year. Tragically, Sophie died a few years after the portrait, at the age of twenty-one. Ingres’s exquisitely refined small graphite portraits were much in demand by French tourists in Rome and Florence, and he made hundreds of them. Drawing was fast becoming a collectable art form.
A third drawing by Ingres in the Thaw collection is a recently discovered preparatory study for Ingres’s Martyrdom of St. Symphorien (1825–34), the thirteen-foot-high canvas which hangs in the Cathedral of Saint-Lazare, Autun. The painting provoked fierce controversy: liberals labeled it a “religious anachronism,” and conservatives called it “divine light” and “the highest sublimity of human thought.” Its murky greyish-brown tonality proved too much for objective critics, and once again Ingres retreated to Rome, where he assumed the directorship of the French Academy in Rome. The hundreds of drawings and oil sketches Ingres produced for this one painting, however, are magnificent examples of the artist’s draftsmanship. (Many are in Harvard’s Fogg Museum.) Study for the Martyrdom of St. Symphorien (1826) is a graphite drawing of a soldier mounted on a horse. The paper has been faintly squared so that the image can be transferred to canvas. The completed painting, however, shows only the head and shoulders of the soldier elevated above the crowd; the horse is lost to view behind the mob surging around St. Symphorien. Ingres’s graphite study is a perfect example of the study process used for hundreds of years, a thorough investigation of the form in all its integrity. The thought process that motivated him—and Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael—had became an anachronism by the end of the nineteenth century.
The Bonna Collection begins with Raphael and ends with Renoir. In an interview published in the introduction to the Met catalogue, Jean Bonna explains that the two qualities that prompted him to purchase all these drawings were “grace and harmony.” These are aesthetic terms. He didn’t purchase drawings for art historical reasons, he explains. Right up until the twentieth century, artists produced drawings as a means to study an idea or a subject. However, the reason collectors and museumgoers look at old master drawings is to soak in their beauty. Artists developed drawings as a private laboratory to explore ideas, and fiercely guarded their secrets. Vasari reported that Leonardo ordered his close assistant to destroy his sketch folios after his death.
Rembrandt, View of Sloten from the East, c.1650

Rembrandt’s landscape sketches were drawn almost exclusively from the immediate surroundings of seventeenth-century Amsterdam. View of Sloten from the East (c. 1650) is one of several pen-and-brown-ink drawings sketched the same day on brown-tinted paper. Each one of the views is seen from the same direction, as Rembrandt progressed along a road that winds between modest houses with thatched roofs and the village church. Two figures are shown working with shovels near a dyke. Minimal pen strokes allow the brown tint of the paper to represent the sky, stretched over the flat landscape. The other sketches of the same view, which belong to other collections, do not vary much in the postion of the workers and the view of the village. They do vary significantly in the details the artist chose to focus upon. In a drawing of Sloten, now in the Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst, Oslo, Rembrandt has spent considerable time recording the dilapidated state of the village church. In a third variation of the scene (Chatsworth Collection, Derbyshire), he focuses on a few boats in the canal that runs below the village. Rembrandt used a rich brown wash over sections of this pen sketch. The three drawings are different in aesthetic resolution, although the details are similar. 

A successful contemporary of Rembrandt, Hendrick Avercamp made many drawings of the landscape around the city of Amsterdam. There are forty drawings by Avercamp in the Royal Collection, Windsor Castle. Rembrandt owned Avercamp’s pen-and-brown-ink drawing The Outer Haarlemmerpoort in Amsterdam from the South (after 1618), which is exhibited at the Met next to Rembrandt’s View of Sloten from the East. There are beautiful elements in Avercamp’s heavily detailed scene of the port, with its canal, boats, series of bridges, city gates, houses, windmills and several figures. This is a drawing to record a scene for future reference. It is also a drawing that would never be mistaken for a Rembrandt. Compared to the bold simplicity of a Rembrandt sketch, it lacks overall cohesion. It serves a primary purpose for a Renaissance artist, to record information, but it lacks Rembrandt’s aesthetic perfection. Still, the composition teaches us a good deal about the uses of drawing in the past.
The modernists, beginning with Degas and Manet in the 1860s, began to emphasize the aesthetic quality they perceived in old master drawings. Because modernism no longer required a traditional academic approach to the figure, the primary functional purpose for preparatory drawing was eliminated. Drawing would now become recognized as an end or “finished” product in its own right. The Bonna Collection, exhibited chronologically, concludes with beautiful works by the seminal modernists, Degas, van Gogh, Gauguin and Cézanne. (The less-rigorous Renoir seems a little out of place in this company.) The Thaw Collection at the Morgan, however, includes several American postmodernist artists, whose works represent an abrupt break not only with the tradition of drawing-as-thinking, but with drawing-as-aesthetics.
The last serious American modernists, such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, used drawing as a means to explore shamanistic ideas and aesthetic form. The postmodernists rejected the idea of art as “graceful and harmonious” and dismissed craft as hegemonic and chauvinistic. To proceed physically through these two great art collections of drawings at the Met and the Morgan is to fast-forward through five hundred years of Western culture. As Raphael’s drawing is an emblem of old master beauty, Jim Dine’s Blind Owl (2000)—a rough series of thick impasto strokes of white and grey, charcoal and oil, in the shape of an owl, superimposed upon a serigraphic photograph of the interior of the artist’s studio—is a symptom of contemporary mediocrity. Beauty is not part of the equation. As we get closer in time to works created in the late twentieth century, an objective viewer becomes aware of a gradual shift in cultural priorities, a different way of seeing and, most importantly, a systemic undermining of standards.
What aesthetic purpose does Dine’s drawing serve? It cannot be placed alongside the Raphael sketch, or even the charcoal-and-pastel Study for Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Avon (1888) by Paul Gauguin, in the Thaw Collection. There are demonstrable formal qualities in the Gauguin sketch, in some ways superior to the finished oil painting of the same scene, now hanging in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Early modernism did not reject formal aesthetics or beauty; postmodernism does. Blind Owl calls attention to the physical process of art-making, not to the formal qualities of art, evident in Raphael’s Study of Soldiers, Andrea del Sarto’s red-chalk Study of Saint Sebastian Kneeling (c. 1518), Francois Clouet’s Portrait of Francois II in red chalk (c. 1556), Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s red-chalk Head of a Young Girl (c. 1765) and Edgar Degas’s powerful charcoal composition Three Dancers (c. 1905).

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Head of a Young Girl, c. 1765Eugene Thaw is attempting to continue his collecting into the present, a laudable ambition, but in choosing works deemed important by establishment experts, he has left unexplored the rich territory of the new realism that has developed over the last fifty years. This has created an unintended consequence for the Morgan and Thaw. Indeed, in an 1994 interview with Jason Edward Kaufman for Art Newspaper, Thaw emphasized the reason he was giving his entire art collection to the Morgan: to avoid becoming involved with institutions that promote postmodernist non-values. “The politically correct has become so dominant in our [cultural institutions] and universities,” Thaw explains, along with “the idea that nothing is true or false except the ethnic, gender, or sexual preference bias we personally bring to it, and that these are the only things that matter in a work of art, not what the artist conceived.” He pointed out several well-known institutions that have compromised their permanent collections by replacing them with “trendy, cutting-edge” works that lack quality, scholarship and craft. 

Thaw is a generous patron and astute collector who could profitably expand his search into the new field of contemporary realism. Artists such as Burton Silverman, Steven Assael, Jacob Collins, Richard Maury and Stephen Gjertson, and hundreds of other talented draftsmen, are inspired by the same sensuous beauty and natural forms as the old masters were. These contemporary artists demonstrate refined qualities of line and form. They are not replicating old master drawings simply to attract a growing appreciative audience, but expressing the innate human desire to create beauty and examine the world about them. These two wonderful collections are firmly anchored in the truths of beauty, grace and harmony, the same values that inspire the new realists.
The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, New York City, 10016. Telephone (212) 685-0008. On the Web at www.themorgan.org. Catalogue: The Thaw Collection of Master Drawings: Acquisitions Since 2002, edited by Patricia Emerson (New York: The Morgan Library & Museum, 2009).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, New York, New York 10028. Telephone (212) 535-7710. On the Web at www.metmuseum.org. Catalogue: Raphael to Renoir: Drawings from the Collection of Jean Bonna, edited by Stjin Alsteens, Carmen Bambach, George Goldner, Colta Ives, Perrin Stein and Nathalie Strasser (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009).

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2009, Volume 26, Number 2