Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown
October 12, 2008 – January 4, 2009
As the supply of old master drawings on the market dwindles, so do exhibitions of them, but if the exhibitions are fewer, their quality remains almost as strong as ever. The Uffizi continued its distinguished tradition at the Morgan Library this past winter, and now the Clark offers a fascinating and very beautiful layered exhibition consisting of sheets from different periods in the formation of its own collection interleaved with one of the most original and appealing of present-day private collections, the Italian drawings of Robert Loper, whose gifts include, in addition to expertise in the nooks and byways of Italian art of the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, fine taste, and a keen sense of fun.
One of the most impressive sections of the exhibition consists of the large finished drawings by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and his son Domenico—both a great favorite among moneyed Americans in the early twentieth century. Sterling bought the Battistas from Knoedler in Paris in 1920 and the Domenicos from the same dealer the following year—all Biblical subjects. What the Clark lacks in breadth, is somewhat balanced by the consistent quality and type of the group. Battista’s delicate and economical Rest on the Flight into Egypt is beyond doubt a masterpiece. Today drawings like these are rare and expensive, and opportunities like Sterling’s belong to a bygone age.
Even rarer in today’s market are drawings like the metalpoint Head of a Woman, now attributed to a Milanese pupil of Leonardo da Vinci’s, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. The lines of the artist’s stylus shine out from its prepared ground with delicacy, warmth, and precision. Sterling Clark bought it at Colnaghi in London in 1917, while the Great War was still raging. It is an outstanding example of Leonardo’s typology of the young female physiognomy and can stand in for the master as creditably as any sheet from his school, although it lacks his Tuscan robustness.
On the same visit to Colnaghi’s Sterling bought the magnificent early drapery study in black chalk by Andrea del Sarto. It is a direct descendent of Leonardo’s drapery studies, drawn in the studio from cloth which has been soaked in gesso, arranged in artful folds, and allowed to harden, so that the master and his assistants could draw it at their leisure. This is one of several elements (Others would be first ideas, figure studies, hand and head studies.) which were worked out in separate drawings and combined in the final study, or modello, of the composition. Black chalk, a favorite medium of Andrea’s, was ideal for the complex contours and surfaces of the drapery and the action of light and shade upon them. The gentle turning of the trunk also shows Leonardo’s innovations in contrapposto at work among the next generation, the classical painters of the High Renaissance. It is a study for the Mystical Marriage of St. Catherinein Dresden, which is dated to around 1510-12.
In the years after the Clarks’ demise acquisition funds were not plentiful, as the estate was settled. The curator of drawings, Rafael Fernandez, a connoisseur of exceptional sensitivity and learning, bought a few modest drawings, but his legacy consists primarily of a stunning atmospheric study of A Young Woman in a Yellow Robe(c. 1630) by the Florentine painter Giovanni da San Giovanni (1592–1636), who was in fact the subject of Rafael’s doctoral dissertation. Not only the exquisite, perhaps slightly ironic stylization of the face, but the use of colored chalks looks back to Leonardo’s school. The lush textures and saturated colors reflect the brilliant palette of Giovanni’s frescoes. In the exhibition, it is placed next to the Boltraffio, where, historically and aesthetically, they speak volumes about the craft and mentality of Italian drawing.
It is important to remember, though, that Sterling Clark amassed no more than a small, if impressive collection of drawings before turning to French painting and decorative arts. To understand what a focused collector of drawings could find between the wars, we have to look to a collector like Franz Koenigs, who acquired over 2600 masterpieces from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries with his own energetic and scholarly taste. The greater part of these are preserved in the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen in Rotterdam.
In recent years, now that acquisition funds are more readily available, the Clark has followed a policy of acquiring drawings (and photographs) in groups, not the small groups Sterling was able to find ninety years ago with dealers, but privately negotiated collections from within collections. In this way they bought the thirty drawings from the John and Alice Steiner Collection in 2004 (which is amply represented in the exhibition) and the sixteen Claude landscapes from the collection of the late Peter Sharp. John and Alice Steiner bought avidly during the heady days of the 1970’s and 1980’s, when superb Italian drawings were still available on the the market. The also sought advice from the best experts of the time, primarily the late Konrad Oberhuber. But the Steiners themselves were dwarfed by the fortunes of Armand Hammer and Ian Woodner, whose collections, or a good part of them, are now in the National Gallery in Washington. The Steiners were astute and studious (Alice had read Classics at the University of Vienna.), and their collection is indeed a fine, characteristic document of that period of collecting. Typical of the Steiners are the two pen drawings by the Florentine Perino del Vaga (1501–1547), one of Raphael’s finest pupils: one of St. Peter, the other of wild fighting horses. Both show Perino’s masterful pen technique, but one is classic, using vigorous but disciplined cross hatching to depict a traditional religious subject of pyramidal construction and the other is more linear, using extended pen strokes in crazed expressiveness to convey the horses’ rage. Its concept and style are characteristic of Perino’s work in Genoa during the early 1530’s.
Another important drawing from the Steiner collection is the red chalk drawing by Guercino of a half-nude, half-reclining elderly male, most likely a study for a flaying of St. Bartholomew or a crucifixion of St. Peter. Among the more subtle drawings of Guercino’s it combines a sensitive observation of the body, sympathy towards the saint’s helpless human condition, and an expression of the faith that bears him up. Another step towards the painterly manner of the Baroque, the exhibition includes the Steiners’ magnificent oil sketch by the Genoese pupil of van Dyck, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609–1664) of The Crucifixion.
Robert Loper began collecting in the 1980s, at a time when other collections were attempting to follow the example of the Steiners, but with less success, given the ever-growing dearth of first-rate drawings.
Following Sacheverell Sitwell’s less trodden path, he has developed a taste for Italian artists of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, often from lesser-known centers in southern Italy—which, at least as far as drawings are concerned, includes Naples—as well as in the extreme north. He has also explored some more out-of-the-way aspects of the mature and late Maniera in the sixteenth century. You will also note a taste for finished drawings and for obscure saints and their doings. Along with the more familiar cast of characters, you will meet Saint Mary Magdalene of the Pazzi, Saint Margaret of Cortona, Saint Alexander of Bergamo, and Saint Onuphrius, a desert hermit.
Loper is also attracted to well-defined contours and stylized, even idiosyncratic figures, as in the Agony in the Garden by Trometta (Pesaro c. 1540–c. 1610). The Agony is a characteristic and outstanding example of how a provincial artist can absorb the manner his teachers, Taddeo and Federico Zuccaro, who were established in Rome, and apply it in a daring, even impetuous way. In this modello, squared for transfer, Trometta appears to defy the rules of perspective as the praying Christ looms over the scene, occupying over half of its vertical dimension, as the Apostles sleep, swathed in shadow in the middle ground, and Judas leads on the soldiers, guided by a lantern, in the background. The deep brown washes and brilliant heightening create a night scene of great tonal range.
You will find many other unusual delights among Robert Loper’s drawings, and nothing ordinary or boring. One can do no better than follow the Clark’s example and adopt the Cavaliere D’Arpino’s magnificent Head of a Satyr (See top.) as an emblem for Mr. Loper’s collection, although Mr. Loper fortunately looks nothing like that creature. Beyond the satyr’s intense sensuality one can see a sense of adventure and inward sensitivity. This is in fact a rather civilized satyr, fit to lounge among the antiquities of the Villa Pamphili. The Michelangelesque mass of the forms, right down to individual strokes of the chalk, offset its slightly sweet softness, that and the subtle blending of the red and the black chalk put this among the very best of the Cavaliere’s sheets.
Except for the space reserved for the Tiepolos, the Loper collection predominates in the second room, which is largely occupied by finished modelli, some of them very large. The variety of materials and methods is astonishing. You’ll find complex, precise studies in heightening and wash of various tones—tawny, deep brown, tan, grey, blue—as well as red and black chalk. These all show an impressive quality of execution as well as their fair share of eccentricity. The juxtaposed trio of Marchesini’s Vision of Saint Margaret of Cortona (1728), Pierfrancesco Mola’s Immaculate Conception (1650′s: Steiner Collection), and Trometta’s aforementioned Agony in the Garden (1590-95) are a striking example of the range you will find…and the Mola is the only one you are likely to find in Janson’s History of Art.
Another especially handsome sheet is Ubaldo Gandolfi’s Entombment(c. 1750), with its expressive, broad swathes of brown wash.
Many drawings from all sources are both interesting and important, and it’s hard to resist discussing them at length. However, I’ll venture only a few observations about some of them, not necessarily the most important, but works that struck me in some odd way.
The tight linearity of contour and heightening against atmospheric washes in this study after Raphael of the Virgin Mary Swooning suggests that this drawing is by a Lombard,Marchigian, or Emilian artist after the Raphaelesque source of the engraving attributed to Giulio Bonasone (B. 50/123) of the Virgin Swooning Accompanied by Three Holy Women. It belongs in the third quarter of the sixteenth century. In the drawing the St. John the Evangelist, the landscape details, the background figures and the differences in the women’s physiognomies show that it relates to the source and not to the print, but not to Raphael’s Baglioni Entombment (Galleria Borghese, Rome) itself, rather an earlier variant (reversed, like the engraving) made available as a modello to the printmaker. Such recombinations of figures are common in Raphael’s working method. The Loper drawing suggests that Raphael’s alternate version may have progressed as far as a group study with some background or even a modello. Note also another copy after Raphael in the British Museum which records yet another variant in the same direction as the painting (1895-9-15-616; Pouncey and Gere, Raphael and his Circle,vol. 1, p. 35, no. 39), as well as a drawing at Princeton (inv. 47-39; Massari 1983, vol. 1, fig 16).
Some of Loper’s drawings delight through their eccentricity, if not their sheer madness. Pietro Malombra, a contemporary of Domenico Tintoretto (1560-1635, the son of the more famous Jacopo, 1519-1594) in his Finding of the True Cross created a wild mixture of circular movement and spatial thrusts, both left to right and front to back, all within a broad, narrow frieze-like field. Malombra’s only drawing (Nat. Gall. Scotland) related to a known painting, St. Stanislaus Szczepanowski, Bishop of Cracow, Raising a Dead Man, with St Hyacinth Kneeling before the Trinity Above, the altarpiece of the altar of the Polish Nation in the Basilica of St Anthony (the Santo) in Padua, is only superficially more well-behaved.
Giovanni Antonio Crecolini’s designs for processional coaches of Anton Florian, Prince of Liechtenstein, showing alternately an allegory of the defeated and Zeus smiting the Titans with his thunderbolts, has to be one of the towering examples of the Italian penchant for vehicular excess. These attracted enough attention to be illustrated in print by G.G. Komarek (Czech, act. Italy, fl . 1680–1719) Breve descrizzione e disegni delle carrozze dell’eccellentissimo signore Antonio Floriano, del S.R.I. prencipe di Liechtenstein,Rome,1694, with engravings by Hubert Vincent after Crecolini’s drawings. The Loper drawings are studies for the engravings facing pages 3 and 4.
The organizers were possibly incorrect in placing Giuseppe Cades’ Coronation of the Virgin in the “Looking Up” section. The composition has quite a firm ground line, indicating that it might have been intended rather for an apse, if anything. No finished work related to this drawing has yet been discovered. The presence of an entirely unrelated decorative design on the verso suggests that the sheet may have belonged to a sketchbook-like portfolio of inventions. (The edges of the full sheet show not races of ever having been bound.) In fact the curious ambiguity of the subject indicates that Cades made the drawing as a display piece, a jeu d’esprit created perhaps for teaching or simply to impress a client. Christ appears as a strapping half-nude male of a classical sort. Cades may well have commenced it as a scene from Greek mythology, a goddess or demi-goddess entreating Zeus with Saturn leaning over his shoulder: the otherwise meaningless curves above their heads suggest Saturn’s scythe. Cades may have been demonstrating his own verstility, or simply the triumph of style over meaning. It is, in any case, a splendid bravura piece, and the fluid way in which the principle forms take shape from the loose curves that flow into the angels is truly astounding.
The several strands of collecting activity are intertwined in the exhibition and grouped by type: heads, male nudes, clothing, bodies in motion, attributes, miracles and martyrs, gesture, visions, heaven and earth, points of view, looking up. (The works by G. B. and Domenico Tiepolo stand apart in a section of their own.) While this organization allows for some visually compelling juxtapositions, the wall texts fail conspicuously when they try to make sense of the groupings. In them there is a good deal about what these particular ingredients might mean in the context of a finished work, very little about how and why they were made, and nothing about the artists, most of whom are little known except to specialists.
Certain questions inevitably attach themselves to drawings like pilot fish to a shark: the question of attribution, above all. While certain art historians, both past and present, may consider the discipline trivial, it imposes itself, because many drawings come down to us unsigned, undocumented, and unattributed. Also, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the developing field of connoisseurship adopted drawings as ideal material for study and training, since they lack the veneer of the sometimes precious materials which compromise the finished work. In a drawing you have only the hand of the master—or not. Then come questions of material and technique, as well as function. A finished compositional study (modello) will look quite different from a sketchy first idea. One can also discuss the evolution of an artist’s technique and style through the coherent stream of his development. (Not every art historian believes in that, or in the individual personality, but, practically speaking, one can actually gain some understanding of an artist’s working method from many of these points.) There are also provenance, collector’s stamps, and mounts to consider. However, a certain formula has developed in exhibitions of drawings over the years, which tends to be rather uniform. Hence there is a certain impatience with the formula, and it is always a good thing to question received practice. Each work of art asks its own questions of us, and it is best to ask the work itself for guidance. Otherwise, one ends up floundering in irrelevancies.
There is no catalogue, but the vapid interpretive material deserves mention, because it drags down the level of an otherwise distinguished exhibition. The text labels arouse my curiosity, because of their generic nature. They could be used many times over for different exhibitions…although I hope the Clark will resist that temptation. Having soldiered through the great age of dumbing-down in the 1980s and 1990s, I feel rather strongly that cultural institutions owe it to their visitors to refrain from insulting their intelligence. Drawn to Drama would have been better off without any interpretive texts at all. If some visitor finds him or herself in a state of curiosity about the wonderful ruddy stuff used in some of the drawings, click here. Of if you are curious about the identity of Domenico Maria Canuti, the Cavaliere d’Arpino, or Giovanni Antonio Crecolini, you won’t find the answer in the galleries either, but you can take the attractive handlist down to the library and consult the Grove Dictionary of Art, or some other handy reference work, depending on what languages you read—and that may be a salutary exercise in itself. Of course what we know about many of these masters is barely enough to fill out an unemployment form. Giovanni da San Giovanni was one of the few to leave behind a few personal details. In his work he showed a penchant for earthy, even ribald subjects. He was a prickly character, it seems, given to ruffling the feathers of his colleagues. At his death, his wife found it advisable to destroy a manuscript of satirical verses composed at the expense of his fellow artists.