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"Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery" opens at the Frick Collection
Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Apples, Bottle and Chairback, c. 1904–6. Graphite and watercolor on wove paper, 18 x 23.8 inches© The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London.

NEW YORK, NY.- In keeping with its tradition of presenting masterworks from collections outside of New York, this fall The Frick Collection presents fifty-eight drawings from The Courtauld Gallery, London. This exhibition marks the first time that so many of the principal drawings in The Courtauld’s renowned collection—one of Britain’s most important—have been made available for loan. The prized sheets—many of which have never been shown in New York— represent a survey of the extraordinary draftsmanship of Italian, Dutch, Flemish, German, Spanish, British, and French artists active between the late Middle Ages and the early twentieth century. The exhibition features works executed in a range of techniques and styles and for a variety of purposes, including preliminary sketches, practice studies, aide-mémoires, designs for other artworks, and finished pictures meant to be appreciated as independent works of art. Among the artists whose drawings are being shown are Andrea Mantegna, Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Peter Paul Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Rembrandt van Rijn, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Charles-Joseph Natoire, Thomas Gainsborough, Francisco Goya y Lucientes, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Théodore Géricault, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. The exhibition is organized by Colin B. Bailey, the Frick’s Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator, and Stephanie Buck, Martin Halusa Curator of Drawings at The Courtauld Gallery. The show, which is accompanied by a scholarly catalogue, opened in London at The Courtauld, running from June 14, 2012, through September 9, 2012, before traveling to the Frick.

In many cases, drawings served as studies for single figures that were part of larger compositions. Jacopo Tintoretto’s Male Figure Bending Forward (c. 1575– 85), for example, relates to a commission for the ducal palace in Venice, while Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Satyr Pouring Wine (1717) is a rare preparatory study for Autumn, one of four allegories intended to decorate the dining room of a Parisian hôtel particulier. Drawings also functioned as preliminary ideas for narrative paintings, such as in the case of Vittore Carpaccio’s double-sided Virgin Reading to the Infant Christ (late 1480s or early 1490s) or Paolo Veronese’s quickly rendered groups in a pen-and-ink study for the enormous painting of Christ Carrying the Cross of 1571. Drawings also may have served as a form of note-taking or as an aide-mémoire to record a significant visual experience, such as Peter Paul Rubens’s black chalk copy of about 1608, made after the head of the Farnese Hercules, one of the most famous classical statues in Rome, which he encountered during his stays in that city as a young artist. Some of the most finished and meticulously drawn sheets presented in the exhibition were intended for reproduction by engravers: Maerten van Heemskerck’s Colossus of Rhodes (1570), Johannes Stradanus’s Pearl Diving (c. 1596), and J.M.W. Turner’s Colchester, Essex (c. 1825–26) all were made with replication in mind. In addition to Michelangelo’s Dream—the most celebrated of all The Courtauld’s independent drawings—the exhibition includes a range of self-sufficient compositions in a variety of techniques and degrees of finish. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s astonishing Storm in the River Schelde with a View of Antwerp (c. 1559) is an exceptionally turbulent marine view that served as an autonomous sheet with a neo-Stoic subtext. Charles-Joseph Natoire’s immaculately drawn and colored Life Class at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, signed and dated 1746, was kept by Natoire for more than thirty years and served as a pictorial testament to the precepts and values of the state system in which all artists were trained during the ancien régime. Honoré Daumier’s watercolor Le Malade imaginaire (c. 1850), a comic interpretation of a scene from Moliére’s last play, has the refinement and finish that rivals his small cabinet pictures and may have been made expressly for the market.

Leonardo da Vinci’s pen-and-ink Studies for Saint Mary Magdalene, in which the saint is shown carrying an open oil jar wrapped in cloth, are likely compositional ideas, made in Florence early in his career, for paintings that were never realized. Although independent devotional paintings of the Magdalene were unknown at this time, Leonardo was following the standard depiction of the sinner who humbled herself before Christ by bathing his feet with perfumed oils then drying them with her hair. It is likely that he started with the larger motif of the saint looking to her left, eyes upturned. In a smaller sketch, Leonardo made the radical adjustment of having the Magdalene, initially shown in profile, confront the viewer directly. In this quickly executed drawing, we almost see her head turn. It has been suggested that here Leonardo has portrayed the Magdalene as she gazes directly at the risen Christ, at the exact moment that she recognizes his divinity. In contemporary devotional literature, the sense of sight was understood to represent the Magdalene’s most elevated love of Christ; the twelfth-century Cistercian theologian Bernard of Clairvaux wrote in his Sermon on the Song of Songs that she had seen him “with the mind’s eye.”

A drawing by a Florentine artist of the next generation bears the marks not only of its maker, but of the members of his workshop in whose hands it may have circulated; the sheet is heavily stained with splashes of gray-black ink. Pontormo’s riveting study Seated Youth most likely shows one of his apprentices, or garzoni, posed on stone steps, resting his right arm and shoulder on a block, and bringing his left hand to his mouth in a gesture of some anxiety. The boy’s eyes are wide open, and both his facial expression and body language seem to register fear. This drawing from life was done quickly and confidently, with Pontormo revising only the placement of the boy’s right arm. Although its main contours are incised, the study—like all of those by Pontormo that show his apprentices in their aprons and stockings—cannot be related to a finished mural or drawing. Pontormo may have based the pose of his model on the figure of Heraclitus/Michelangelo in Raphael’s fresco of the School of Athens. However, it is also likely that he directed the boy to assume a quite different expression from Raphael’s prototype—both of face and body—transforming the figure study into an exploration of the depiction of fear.

From a decade later, Michelangelo’s Dream or Il Sogno—the title given to this sheet by Giorgio Vasari in 1568—is an early example of a quite different category of drawing: a meticulously finished composition in black chalk intended as an independent work of art. This complex, enigmatic allegory was in all probability made for a young Roman noble, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, who studied Michelangelo’s drawings carefully and shared them with sophisticated connoisseurs in his circle. A beautiful, muscular male nude resting against a sphere is shown seated on a box, open to reveal a jumble of theatrical masks. A winged figure, sounding a trumpet that is directed at the youth’s forehead, descends from the sky. Behind these central figures are groups of men and women who engage in violent and bestial activities associated with the seven deadly sins. Two disembodied hands to the right of the angel hold a purse bulging with coins; another hand, less easy to decipher, to the left of the kissing couple beneath the angel, clasps a phallus. The composition seems to address an eternal theme: how to overcome temptation and achieve a virtuous life, with the youth embodying the human mind awakened from evil dreams.

Twenty-nine of the drawings in the current exhibition (including those by Leonardo, Pontormo, Michelangelo, and Rubens) entered The Courtauld Gallery in 1978 as a bequest from Antoine Edward, Count Seilern und Aspang. The Austrian count was an art historian who, at the age of thirty, inherited a fortune from his grandmother and began to collect Old Master paintings and drawings. Rubens’s drawing of Helena Fourment, the magnificent portrait of his second wife, is one of the masterworks of The Courtauld. The sixteen-year-old daughter of a wealthy silk and tapestry merchant, Helena is likely shown soon after her marriage to the fifty-three-year-old Rubens in December 1630. Here she clasps a prayer book in her gloved left hand; her beautiful bare right hand, drawn in red, black, and white chalks, reaches up to catch the mantle or veil that is suspended from the top of her headdress, which would have covered her face and upper body. This sheet is one of three similarly large-scale yet intimate studies of Helena, likely made at the same sitting, each of which may be considered independent works that are not preparatory for a finished painting. (Rubens’s full-length portrait of Fourment, now in the Louvre, is more formal in presentation and shows her with a quite different expression.) The artist’s depiction of his young bride’s beautiful face, with its soft, rosy skin and somewhat vulnerable expression is a technical and psychological tour de force. She is literally and figuratively unveiled for the beholder’s delectation.

Although Seilern bequeathed the drawing by Picasso in the exhibition to The Courtauld, the Gallery’s renowned holdings of French nineteenth-century paintings and drawings were the gift of its eponymous founder, Samuel Courtauld, who had been advised in his early acquisitions of Impressionist works by Roger Fry. (Fry was briefly an advisor to Henry Clay Frick; it was he who had been responsible for Frick’s purchase of Rembrandt’s Polish Rider in 1910.) Georges Seurat’s vibrant Female Nude—one of the very few studies of naked women that the artist made—emerges from a web of black conté crayon marks, applied with considerable energy onto richly textured Michallet paper with its prominent laid lines. It is quite likely that Seurat made this drawing in his final year at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied between 1876 and 1879. As would have been appropriate for this fairly conventional academic exercise, Seurat places his model in the center of the page and depicts her full length against a dark background. There is a certain awkwardness in Seurat’s grasp of his model’s anatomy. His repeated delineation of the model’s right breast—not altogether successful—and the incomplete hands and feet also suggest that the female nude still presented certain challenges at this early stage in his career. Seurat’s model might have been allowed to rest her right knee on a chair to support her weight, a concession not available to those who posed for more formal exercises. The contours of the model’s anatomy are defined by shading and smudging the crayon with a stump; there are no independent outlines in this académie, and the pulsating energy of Seurat’s hand endows the sheet with extraordinary sensuality, softness, and atmosphere.

The grandest of the works on paper bequeathed by Courtauld to the Gallery is Paul Cézanne’s Apples, Bottle and Chairback, a watercolor made in the last years of the artist’s life. Here Cézanne literally floods the paper with color and light, achieving a freshness and radiance that equal, if not surpass, his late paintings in oil. This festive still life consists of a blue and white faïence dish, placed at the center of the table and filled with apples. Five apples have tumbled from the dish and now sit apart on the table; a sixth seems to be in the process of joining them. At left, a bottle with its neck truncated glows almost black; in front of it is a tall, but empty, wine glass with an elegant turned stem; Cézanne has painted it blue to reflect the hues of the faïence dish. Anchoring the composition in the background is the ornamental back of a wooden chair of vaguely Baroque design. In its turn, the chair back frames a view of the colored wallpaper in the background. Vibrancy is everywhere.

Cézanne composes in both line and color; the vigorous graphite under drawing functions not only as a sort of armature or palimpsest, but reinforces the structure of every object, endowing each motif with an interior dynamism that in no way impugns the monumentality and solidity of the composition. Despite its mundane subject matter, Cézanne’s Apples, Bottle and Chairback achieves a grandeur and joyousness that are celebratory. “A strong sensation of nature,” Cézanne wrote to a friend in January of 1904, “was the necessary basis of every conception of art.” No less essential, however, was to know the “means of expressing our emotion,” something that could only be gained “through long experience.” In its fusion of deeply felt emotion and mastery of the means of expression, The Courtauld’s magisterial, late watercolor perfectly exemplifies Cézanne’s credo.

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