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American Drawings and Watercolors in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Highlights from the Collection, 1710-1890

September 3-December 1, 2002

 

More than 100 works in pencil, pen and ink, chalk, pastel, and watercolor by some of this country's most renowned early artists will be featured in American Drawings and Watercolors in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Highlights from the Collection, 1710-1890, opening to the public on September 3, 2002. On view will be examples of portraiture by academic and folk artists, figure drawing, historical and literary narrative, landscape ­ including several early views of New York City ­ and scientific illustration. Drawn entirely from the Museum's exceptional holdings of this material, the exhibition celebrates the publication of Volume I of American Drawings and Watercolors in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which includes works by artists born before 1835.

The exhibition will offer a rare opportunity to see many of the Museum's American works on paper, which ­ due to their fragile nature and sensitivity to light ­ are displayed only periodically. The often informal character or preparatory function of some of these works will lend insight into an artist's creative impulses and working processes, yet the exceptional care and finish lavished on numerous others signifies the high regard many artists had for these ostensibly humbler media.

Echoing the chronological arrangement of the catalogue, the exhibition will begin with portraits by Henrietta Johnston (ca. 1674-1729), the first professional woman artist in the United States and also one of the country's first pastelists, and will end with works by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), who is best remembered for paintings in which subtle tonal effects are explored.

Considered the country's most talented 18th-century artist, John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) left America in 1774 to take the grand tour through Italy and France before settling permanently in London, where he studied with Sir Joshua Reynolds. Well-known as a portraitist, in England Copley became a successful history painter. The 1785-86 Study for "The Siege of Gibraltar": Three Figures documents both his methods ­ the chalk drawing is squared and inscribed with notations for transfer to canvas ­ and the evolution of a monumental painting for which he sketched, altered, and edited groupings of figures over a period of eight years.

Founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painters, Thomas Cole (1801-1848) was as imaginative and vigorous a draftsman as he was a painter. In The Fountain, he visualized a poem of the same title by his friend William Cullen Bryant, lamenting the loss of the natural landscape and the disappearance of Native Americans from the eastern woodlands. In the deep forest interior Cole depicts here, tree trunks in the foreground bend aside to reveal the rocky mouth of the fountain of the title and the mortally wounded brave ­ in Bryant's words, "slaking his death-thirst" ­ whose pose echoes its form.

In 1866, watercolor finally arrived in America as a high art in its own right with the foundation of the American Water Color Society, and the landscape painter William Trost Richards (1833-1905) emerged as one of the Society's most highly regarded exhibitors. As such, his watercolors also became the first American drawings acquired by the Metropolitan, in 1880. His Rocky Coast of 1877 is a striking orchestration of heaving surf, stark geology, and tempestuous sky at Nahant, Massachusetts. With its large size, rich gouache technique, and fibrous brown paper support approximating an oil painting on canvas, it declares the artist's ambition to raise the profile of the watercolor medium in America.

Whistler's highly finished watercolor Lady in Gray (ca. 1883) ­ as refined a work as any of his canvases ­ depicts a proud yet fetchingly attired woman in a surprisingly small format (11-1/4 x 5 inches). The subject ­ whose identity remains unknown ­ emerges from a dark background in a dark dress, dramatically recalling the work of the Spanish master Velázquez.

Other artists whose works will be on view include: the history painters Benjamin West (1738-1820), John Trumbull (1756-1843), Mather Brown (1761-1831), and John Vanderlyn (1775-1852); the prolific portrait painter Thomas Sully (1783-1872); the founder of the National Academy of Design, inventor, and daguerreotypist Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872); the landscapists Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) and John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872); the explorer-artist Karl Bodmer (1809-1893); and the history painter and muralist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1816-1868).

Volume I of American Drawings and Watercolors in The Metropolitan Museum of Art features an introduction by Kevin J. Avery, Associate Curator, American Paintings and Sculpture; an essay by Marjorie Shelley, Sherman Fairchild Conservator in Charge, Sherman Fairchild Center for Works on Paper and Photograph Conservation; and contributions by Claire A. Conway, Research Associate. Catalogue entries were written by Kevin J. Avery; Carrie Rebora Barratt, Curator and Manager of the Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art; Tracie Felker, former Chester Dale Fellow; and Stephanie L. Herdrich, Research Associate ­ all from the Metropolitan Museum's Department of American Paintings and Sculpture; Elliot Bostwick Davis, John Moors Cabot Chair, Department of Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and independent art historian Karl Kusserow. Published by the Museum and distributed by Yale University Press, the book will be available in the Museum's Book Shops. The publication is made possible through the support of the William Cullen Bryant Fellows.

The exhibition is organized by Kevin J. Avery, Associate Curator, and Claire A. Conway, Research Assistant, Department of American Paintings and Sculpture.

The Web site for the Metropolitan http://www.metmuseum.org/ will feature the exhibition.

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Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

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