Connections and Influences: “Master Drawings Unveiled”

by Taylor L. Poulin

“Master Drawings unveiled: 25 Years of Major Acquisitions,” on view through January 29, 2017, at the Art Institute of Chicago, is a treasure trove of works on paper purchased by the Museum over the last quarter century, virtually none of which have been on view in Chicago until now. First-time visitors to the museum as well as visitors familiar with the Art Institute’s holdings will be rewarded by an exhibition that creates rich links throughout the collection, but which also stands alone as an informative, widely varied and engaging overview of first-rate acquisitions.

Arranged chronologically, the exhibition features more than eighty studies, drawings, sketches and finished works. Subject matter encompasses portraiture, landscapes, genre and religious scenes and fantastical dreamscapes. The curators selected pieces that showcase a wide range of the many techniques and media used to create works on paper. This is not just an exhibition of graphite sketches: pen, colored pencils, gouache, gilding and pastel all feature as well, alone and in different combinations. One of the most fascinating displays of mixed media is The Anniversary (Homage to Hector Berlioz) (1877), by French artist Henri Fantin-Latour (1836–1904). To depict several figures mourning at the tomb of the Romantic composer Hector Berlioz, the artist began with a lithograph in black ink, covering it over with pastel and watercolor, which was subsequently scraped. The result is a structured, exquisitely drawn composition with a surprisingly built-up, chalky texture.

Gustave Caillebotte, <i>Study for Paris Street; Rainy Day</i>, 1877 <br/>The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

The chronological beginning of the exhibition features works by European artists—among them German, French, Italian, Swiss and Danish—from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. A spooky, beautifully executed depiction of Saint John the Evangelist (1519) by German artist Hans Franckenberger the Elder (active from about 1519–30) is the exhibition’s earliest work. Saint John’s robes appear to glow from the contrast of their white gouache against the brown wash of the ground, creating a striking image. Across the room, another work literally shines: Interior View of the Church of Saint Peter’s in the Vatican, from around 1770 by Francesco Panini (1745–1812), is an airy and delicate watercolor that satisfyingly relays the vastness of the nave and aisles of the church. On top of the watercolor, architectural details such as the elaborately coffered ceilings, the pediments above the windows that line the cupolas and vault and Bernini’s twisting baldachin soaring in the crossing are all outlined or dotted with real gilding. The image is a reproduction of the painting by Panini’s father, Giovanni Paolo Panini (this painting is in the collection of the Boston Athenaeum). The younger Panini sought to capitalize on the popularity of his father’s paintings by collaborating with engraver Giovanni Volpato to reproduce some of these images, but he added his own touch, such as the gilding. The effect creates a shimmering interpretation of Giovanni Panini’s darker, more saturated canvas.

The central section of the exhibition includes four studies that relate to important paintings in the Art Institute’s larger collection, emphasizing how separate departments within a museum can effectively support and expand upon each other. One wall is devoted to works by French artist Gustave Caillebotte (1848–94). The exhibition includes all three works on paper by Caillebotte owned by the Art Institute; a large graphite study for Caillebotte’s beloved painting Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) is hung in the front corner of the room, at the exhibition’s entry. Gridded for eventual transfer to canvas, Study for “Paris Street; Rainy Day” reveals in meticulous, minimal detail how the artist sought to depict the three deep perspectives generated by the intersection of four streets in the middle ground. Caillebotte’s use of immersive perspective and his placement of large, somewhat confrontational figures in the foreground of the picture plane capture a dynamic and unusual view of late nineteenth-century Paris. This sketch offers a superlative understanding of the way the artist brought Paris Street; Rainy Day to life. Scattered throughout the image are elongated squiggles and tall Xs where the artist imagined figures would eventually populate the scene. Passages of the street and a defined section of cobblestones near the lamppost in the foreground are smudged and shaded, as though to indicate the glossy reflection of the street as it would look when wet from rain, while a dominant, convex arc foreshadows the large umbrella that would ultimately belong to the stylish couple heading toward the viewer in the foreground.

Adjacent to the study for Paris Street; Rainy Day is a small sketchbook, the only one known to be attributed to Caillebotte. In 1881, the artist purchased a home near the Paris suburb of Argenteuil, then a mostly rural neighborhood, and spent increasingly greater stretches of time there until 1888, when he moved there permanently. The sketchbook, inscribed with dates progressing from June 1883 through September 1887, is filled with watercolors and drawings of landscapes and figure studies made over the course of those four years. The book is open to an image of a clutch of buildings surrounded by lush trees; the structures’ rooftops surrounded by green foliage highlight the contrast between the artist’s varying focus on both urban and rural scenes. The sketchbook comes to life through an adjacent digital rendering that allows the visitor to flip through high-resolution scans of the thirty-page book. Self-Portrait with a Hat, an intense and elegant unfinished graphite sketch from about 1879, completes this view of Caillebotte’s keen observation and his talent for rendering both himself and the world around him.

Three studies on the opposite wall also support paintings in the collection that are currently on view in other galleries. Compositional Study for “The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and the Muses" (1883–84) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–98) is a tightly composed and particularly lush graphite study for the final canvas. The painting, a reproduction of a larger mural commissioned for the Musée de Beaux Arts in Lyons, assembles the nine patron goddesses of the arts in a composed, classical landscape setting. The canvas is remarkably static and cool compared to the activity suggested by the sketch, in which trees bend and sway while rounded figures gesture and appear to communicate with one another, perching on the shore of a lake or clustered in groups and pairs.

Camille Pissarro’s study for Young Peasant Having Her Coffee (1879–80), one of the largest studies completed by the artist and a sketch only a few inches smaller than the finished canvas, also epitomizes the value of viewing preparatory drawings for comprehending an artist’s working process. In the sketch, Pissarro struggles to render the peasant’s hands: her left hand holding the coffee mug has flat, unfinished fingers, while her right hand, obscured by a spoon she holds just outside of the mug, has a vigorously reworked connection between wrist and thumb. In the painting, on view in the European galleries as well as on the label, both hands are firmly resolved, broad and solid, and the spoon is now placed inside the mug. It is a treat to see Pissarro work through problem areas and change his mind from sketch to finished work. Both sketch and painting, however, share a profound sense of the girl’s soft introspection as she calmly goes about her task.

Adjacent to these two works is a sheet of three views of Berthe Jacques, the wife of Swiss Symbolist painter Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918), posing for what would become Hodler’s crisp and enigmatic painting Day (Truth) (1896–99). Berthe is shown in the nude at a three-quarter angle, her arms raised and bent at the elbows, her long hair flowing in a thick sheet down her back; the pose is equally vulnerable and magnificent. Hodler draws his wife in two different stances, one more classical and slightly contrapposto, and the other rigid and erect. The latter is the stance he chooses for the final painting. The canvas, on view in the European galleries, presents Berthe head-on, instead of at an angle, and conveys the frailty evident in the sketch, along with a controlled monumentality brought on by Berthe’s direct (if somewhat distant) gaze and the larger-than-life size of the canvas. A lightly penciled grid around her torso and legs is still visible under a thin wash of violet and white paint, providing a tangible connection between sketch and painting that allowed Hodler to transfer his ideas from study to canvas.

Additional connections woven into the exhibition include the influence of relationships between artists on view, especially those living and working in France in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Two dynamic, figure-filled studies of an audience in a theater by Italian painter Giovanni Boldini (1842–1931) are pages taken from a sketchbook he made just after he moved to Paris and became acquainted with Edgar Degas. The small studies, one more finished than the other, are full of fashionable, rapt theater-goers, displaying Boldini’s talent as a society artist and his signature interest in describing the distinct features and clothing of his subjects. The more finished sketch of the two is firmly bisected diagonally by the curling scroll of a double bass, and the second sketch echoes progress toward a similar composition: it becomes apparent that each scene is being viewed from within or near the orchestra pit. The label bears a reproduction of a Degas pastel from the Art Institute’s collection of ballet dancers on stage, a scene also viewed from the orchestra pit. This comparison offers a gratifying example from within the Museum’s own collection of how Boldini was inspired by Degas’ innovations in composition to create his own novel approach to urban life, particularly in his theater and circus scenes.

Edgar Degas, Beach at Low Tide (Mouth of the River), 1889 The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

In the next room, devoted largely to French and German artists working in the Realist style, a work by Edgar Degas (1834–1917) himself appears in the form of a bright and relatively rare landscape pastel, Beach at Low Tide (Mouth of the River) (1869). Degas is more widely identified with his scenes of late-nineteenth-century urban life in Paris and the various figures that filled it, such as cafe singers, dancers and shop workers; the Art Institute owns splendid examples of all of these subjects. In these works he often focused on the atmosphere of the environment and its inhabitants instead of imparting precise and specific details, and this approach is one element that makes his paintings of urban life so evocative. Beach at Low Tide, while part of a small group of lesser-known pastel landscapes that the artist made while traveling through Normandy, also exudes an interest in atmosphere. Dense, matte blue pastel creates the effect of a bright blue sky, while touches of dark green along the inlet at left stand in for seaweed, and chalky, pressed marks of burnt umber along the water differentiate the varying shades of sand. In the distance, minuscule marks of black and white represent figures walking along the beach and gathering near a moored sailboat. The flexibility of pastel allows Degas to depart from a more realistic approach and depict this scene with a level of intuition that results in an almost abstraction composition.

While the exhibition is full of fantastic things worth viewing, two additional works in this section beg a closer glance. In a Railway Carriage (After a Night’s Journey) (1851), a gouache by German Realist Adolphe Menzel (1815–1905), offers a scene that will be familiar to frequent travelers. A slightly disheveled, bleary-eyed woman gazes dully out of a train car window, while the man next to her is awkwardly bent in his seat, his hat pulled down over his face, attempting sleep. The journey has evidently been a long one: a crumpled newspaper and a variety of the travelers’ belongings are strewn about the car, while the hazy, green-blue light outside indicates early morning. Menzel’s honest (and amusing) depiction of the discomfort of train travel in the mid-nineteenth century was unusual for its time, but, to a twenty-first-century viewer, it stands as an enduring example of how little has changed in regard to the fatigue induced by long-haul travel.

Henri Fantin-Latour Self-Portrait, 1857 The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IllinoisAcross the room, yet another reference to Edgar Degas appears in the black chalk Self-Portrait by Henri Fantin-Latour (1857), who combined media to great effect in the pastel homage to Berlioz earlier in the exhibition. Fantin-Latour made several graphite, chalk and oil self-portraits early in his career, inspired by both Degas and Rembrandt; later he became known for floral still lifes and society portraits. In this sketch of himself, the right side of the artist’s face emerges from a quickly drawn, thick mass of short lines that obscure the left half of his face. Brooding and impassioned, it offers a wonderful contrast to the prim, lightly drawn view of Caillebotte in his Self-Portrait with a Hat.

The exhibition ends with a small selection of twentieth-century works on paper. Portraits by Käthe Kollwitz, Ludwig Meidner and Laura Knight offer reflections of introspection, angst and peace. They face off with two Surrealist scenes by Max Beckmann and Jean Cocteau, hung on the opposite wall, while Francis Picabia’s esoteric and layered Self-Portrait (c. 1929) sings from a corner. Part of Picabia’s Transparencies series, a group of images he made between 1928 and 1933, after he broke from the avant-garde in Paris and moved south to the French Riviera, this self-portrait is a dense thicket of imagery, faces and allusions. Picabia’s face, handsome and joyous, nestles next to that of a woman— likely Germaine Everling, his wife at the time. The couple’s likenesses are surrounded by leaves and flowers and overlaid by a disparate group of images that make reference to religious, classical and mythological themes: bunches of grapes, a ram’s head, an empty-eyed Adonis and a hand in a gesture of benediction, which seems to be offering a blessing to the blissful-looking couple.

The exhibition ends with—and is anchored by—American artist Grant Wood’s meditative pastel January (1938). The work is hung next to the introductory text for the exhibition and is a standout choice. It offers a deep sense of introspection that reveals a contrasting view to his earlier, more satirical approaches to rural and farm life, such as the Art Institute’s iconic painting American Gothic (1930). Tall, triangular bundles of corn covered in snow march through a field in endless rows under a darkening sky, while animal tracks are scattered throughout the foreground and run parallel to the bundles into the distance. Wood’s rolling, rounded painterly style is palpable under the busy, angular cross-hatching of the sky and ground. A rare pastel by the artist, the corn bundles of January are one of few subjects that Wood treated in a variety of media, portraying this same scene in pastel, lithograph and oil on canvas (the canvas lives at the Cleveland Museum of Art). The painting was finished a short time before the artist died in 1942, making this pastel among the last works Grant Wood completed.

“Master Drawings Unveiled: 25 Years of Major Acquisitions” recounts a deeply thoughtful and successful effort over the last twenty-five years by the Art Institute’s Prints and Drawings team to fill in gaps in their collection, add strength and diversification to their holdings and build valuable connections between studies and finished paintings. It will be exciting to see what treasures the next twenty-five years bring.


 American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2016, Volume 33, Number 4