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Tracing the Nation: Recently Acquired American Drawings

August 26 - November 11, 2007


Tracing the Nation celebrates the Columbus Museum's acquisition of a major private collection of American drawings in 2007 -- one that now distinguishes the museum as among the most significant repositories for American drawing in the country. The featured works were originally assembled by legendary collector Paul Magriel, and subsequently acquired by Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Flom, of New York. On public view for the first time, the 105 sheets represent rare and important American master drawings by some of the nation's most prominent artists. The exhibited works celebrate the rich history of American drawing from the late 18th through the 20th century and the many ways in which artists have used the medium to portray the nation's evolving character. The Columbus Museum defines drawing as any unique work on paper, and the exhibition represents the great variety of approaches to the medium including pencil, charcoal, watercolor, gouache, pastel, ink and silverpoint.



In the late 18th century, because there were no American art institutions, trained artists in the Colonies were mainly European immigrants who brought with them current Continental art styles. Most worked to meet the population's growing demand for portraits, while others depicted the emerging cities and landscapes about them. For aspiring American artists, any hope of a successful career meant traveling to Europe to study. It is not surprising that drawing was important in allowing them to develop compositions in preparation for paintings or sculptures.



With the rapid expansion of America's vast territories by the early 19th century, artists began to paint landscapes as symbols of national identity, future prosperity and the presence of a Supreme Being in nature. Although many artists occasionally depicted European landmarks from tours abroad, when they focused their attention on America's wilderness, they chose to celebrate its unfathomable boundaries and untamed character. Drawing allowed them to venture everywhere and record nature from its grandest vistas to its smallest details. Artists affiliated with the Hudson River School, the nation's first landscape movement, often made frequent sketching trips out into the American countryside to prepare for larger paintings made later in the studio. They also produced drawings that were intended as finished works.

As the country's population expanded, an increasing number of artists turned their attention to producing images of America's people in urban and rural settings. So-called "genre" painters drew likenesses of family, friends and community members in preparation for paintings that depicted telling moments in everyday life. Together, these images provide an important record of the nation, its people and social customs.



Late 19th-century America was transformed by the rise of industry and major urban centers. This growth led to the emergence of sophisticated upper-class patrons who provided unprecedented support for the arts and hungered for an expanding variety of the latest styles and subjects. More and more American artists set out to satisfy this increased demand by traveling to Europe to study. They became thoroughly grounded in sophisticated techniques of figure painting in order to attain the level of grace and skill that American collectors admired in European academic works. Classical and Renaissance sources often inspired their work.



In the beginning of the twentieth century a group of young artists based in New York City distinguished themselves from other American artists of the time. "The Eight," as they called themselves, believed art should reflect scenes from everyday urban life, and not the mythological figures or bucolic landscapes favored by leading traditional art academies in America and Europe. Several of these progressive artists began careers as newspaper illustrators and naturally used the immediacy of drawing to capture the observations of street life around them as it happened. Such commonplace scenes, drab colors and casual technique were considered offensive by more conservative audiences, and earned them the name, "Ash Can School." However, these avant-garde artists' controversial beliefs declared that everyday life was a worthy subject for fine art, and this concept remained influential to following generations of American artists.

New York City's Armory Show of 1913 was the first large exhibition of international modern art in America. It introduced the United States to the work of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and other modern masters from Europe. Avant-garde American artists also exhibited their work in the Armory Show. Inspired by European modernists, they developed their own personal methods of using the human figure as a means of exploring geometric form and pictorial space. Many sacrificed narrative imagery in favor of exploring the role of line, color and form in an abstracted manner. By the time America entered World War I in 1917, modern art had taken firm hold in a number of major urban centers across the nation.



After World War I, more and more of America's artists and writers set out to define a true American style that was less dependent upon European influence. They were part of a new "American Scene" movement and used narrative styles in their art to highlight national ideals and reflect pressing social concerns. Drawings by Social Realists focused on the daily conditions of American life during the challenging economic times of the 1930s.

Other artists of this time developed highly individual styles by combining elements from several modern movements. Their images of buildings, machines and other symbols of the nation's progressive spirit often blend Surrealism's interest in dream imagery and surface texture with Precisionism's rigid geometry. In the 1940s, new ideas from European painters who came to America to escape the War changed America's artists. Most of the immigrants settled in New York City and championed new approaches to abstract form and bold color in ways that energized New York's rich art scene.



The featured works in Tracing the Nation underscore the importance of drawing as a medium and its historical role as the fundamental skill required of virtually all artists, architects and designers. Traditionally, drawing is the first step in planning any design or image. It can reflect the artist's most creative moments, a direct record of his or her immediate gestures and thought processes. While some drawings are preliminary sketches for a painting or sculpture, others are complete and finished works of art in and of themselves. The simplicity of the materials and immediacy of drawing allow the artist expressive freedom, thus making the process the most direct manifestation of an artist's ideas and talents.

For the Columbus Museum, drawing is defined as a unique work on paper, which consists of marks applied using a variety of methods and materials. Marks appear in every way imaginable -- by applying delicate pencil lines or expressively flung ink or watercolor, as well as by removing pigment with erasers, solvents or bladed instruments. Other forms of drawing include silverpoint, collage and monoprint. Drawing offers artists the immediate satisfaction of making marks by hand onto a paper surface without elaborate preparations or the intervention of digital technology.

Some drawings are preliminary sketches for a painting or sculpture. Others are complete and fully finished works of art in and of themselves. The works in the exhibition demonstrate how drawings serve various purposes.


Evolution of the Columbus Museum's American Drawing Collection

Since the Columbus Museum opened its doors to the public in 1953, drawings have represented a collecting area in which the institution could readily afford important works of art by leading American artists. Some of the more than 400 sheets in the collection were individual gifts and purchases acquired over the years. However, the majority of this collection is new as recently as the last five years. In 2002, the Museum's collection rose to a level of national importance with the acquisition of more than 125 American drawings owned by Dr. and Mrs. Philip L. Brewer of Columbus. The Brewer acquisition includes great works by many of the key artists in American art history. In order to bring greater visibility to the collection, the Museum curated the traveling exhibition, Lines of Discovery: 225 Years of American Drawings and published an illustrated volume to accompany the exhibition on its national tour.

The Museum's collection took another leap forward with this 2007 acquisition of 105 sheets owned by Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Flom, of New York. The Flom drawings represent an extraordinary acquisitions opportunity due to their high quality and great rarity. The Floms acquired the works from visionary collector Paul David Magriel (1906-1990), who purchased American drawings during the 1960s and early 1970s when great works were much more accessible and by modern standards quite affordable. With the acquisition of the Flom drawings, the Columbus Museum now owns one of the most extensive collections of American drawings in the country.

One of the principal motives for the acquiring the 105 works featured in Tracing the Nation is that they strengthen the Museum's collection in several ways. First, they add depth to the Museum's relatively few drawings produced before 1850. Second, they include great works by key American masters such as John Vanderlyn, Raphaelle Peale, William Sidney Mount, Frederic Church, Augustus Vincent Tack, James Abbott McNeill Whistler not represented in the Museum's collection, and whose drawings are nearly impossible to find. Representative drawings by Thomas Sully, Thomas Hovenden, Eastman Johnson and Theodore Robinson complement major paintings by artists already in the Museum's collection. Other drawings in the acquisition enable the Museum to represent the work of key artists in depth -- two sheets by John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Thursbye and Madame Helleu, represent the first Sargent figure drawings acquired by the Museum and stand as an important complement to the Museum's Sargent watercolor, Spanish Window. Winslow Homer's pencil drawing, Head of a Girl, represents the artist's important period in England during 1881-1882, and now joins the Museum's charcoal drawing by Homer, Pond Lilies, done on American soil in 1884.

Tracing the Nation demonstrates the essential role drawing has played in the formation and development of American art for more than two centuries. While representing an overview of American art history, this selection of works attests to the unique properties of drawing and its status as the most intimate, immediate and versatile art medium.


(above: Winslow Homer, Head of a Girl 1882, Pencil on paper)


(above: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Woman's Head in Profile, Charcoal on paper)


(above: John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Mme. Helleu, ca. 1880, Charcoal on paper)

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