“The Thaw Collection: Master Drawings and New Acquisitions” at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.
September 21, 1994–January 22, 1995

This is the third exhibition of new drawings from the collection of Eugene and Clare Thaw to be shown at the Morgan Library. It is also likely to be the last, since Mr. Thaw’s interests in collecting have shifted largely to Native American art. I suspect that most people who peruse the one hundred drawings on view here will be saddened by this fact. Anyone who could have assembled such a marvelous collection of master drawings is undoubtedly also capable of doing splendid things in the field of Native American art. But the Thaw collection of drawings is so good that anyone who has been privileged to see it may be forgiven for wishing that Mr. Thaw would go on doing what he has done so well before.

Organized by Cara Dufour Denison, curator of drawings and prints at the Morgan, this exhibition consists of the seventy sheets that Mr. Thaw acquired since the last Morgan exhibition of his drawings, in 1985 (the first was a decade before, in 1975), along with thirty additional sheets from his collection to balance the exhibition. Mr. Thaw has promised the entire collection—250 drawings, dating from the Renaissance to the mid-twentieth century—to the Morgan. So while this may be the last exhibition of newly acquired drawings from the Thaw collection to be seen there, it will presumably not be the last time that one can go to the Morgan to see these exquisite works.

Approximately a third of the exhibition is devoted to Old Master drawings, including sheets by Jan Brueghel, Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Claude Lorrain, and Altdorfer. Among the highpoints of this part of the exhibition, which is shown enfilade in the Morgan’s cloister gallery, are Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Portrait of a Man in a Black Cap, a highly finished oil sketch on paper, and Tiepolo’s droll fantasy The Last Illness of Punchinello.

This is one of those exhibitions in which every second item calls out for comment and admiration. There is Fragonard’s haunting Portrait of a Neapolitan Girl, some beautiful drawings in chalk on blue paper by Prud’hon, and one of the best, least melodramatic landscapes I have ever seen by Caspar David Friedrich. (There are also a few Friedrichs with the usual quota of “sublimity.”) The exhibition has been sensitively installed and one encounters many instructive juxtapositions. Perhaps the most illuminating conjunction is the pairing of Turner’s fervent late watercolor The Pass at Faido, St. Gotthard, a swirling dynamo of color and movement, with John Ruskin’s strikingly uncharacteristic copy or imitation, Rocks in Unrest.

There are many other splendid things: a pointillist study by Pissarro that achieves a remarkable effect using surprisingly few dots, a powerful self-portrait by Marc Chagall (far better than one might have thought possible), and at least two exquisitely del- icate late watercolors by Cézanne, Trees (which is not in the catalogue) and Still Life with Pears and Apples, Covered Blue Jar, and a Bottle of Wine. The Cézannes certainly occupy the zenith of the exhibition, but perhaps the single most breathtaking item is Ingres’s Odalisque with Slave, a copy in pencil, chalk, gouache, and gray and brown wash of the famous painting owned by the Fogg Museum at Harvard. Its combination of languorous sensuality and stupendous technical control—just look at the meticulous care with which Ingres has delineated the odalisque’s flowing hair—makes the drawing a supreme masterpiece.

Among the many pleasures to be had from an exhibition of important drawings is the sense of intimacy and communion one has at such close proximity to the hand of the artist. This is especially precious at a moment when the importance of connoisseurship, taste, and first-hand acquaintance with works of art is being undermined by a proliferation of commentary, reproductions, “audio tours,” and digitized simulacra—anything but the work itself. Great drawings are a great resource against this process of aesthetic degradation, as this remarkable exhibition reminds us. In one of the introductions to the catalogue, Mr. Thaw is quoted on this point. He notes that it is the “particular quality of drawings, their kinship to handwriting, which most attracts us to them as evidence of the authentic touch of the artists’ own hand. In this age of computers, multiples, and other devices for graphic programming and duplication, the artist’s hand seems to be getting less and less important. All the more reason to cherish such survivals from other times when the hand of genius was a sign of civilization.” And all the more reason that we should be grateful to Mr. Thaw and to the Morgan Library for making this splendid record of genius and civilization possible.

A catalogue of the exhibition, handsomely printed by the Stinehour Press, has been published by the Morgan and is distributed by the University of Washington Press (280 pages, $37.50 paper).

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 2, on page 51
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