Editor's note: The following catalogue essay was reprinted in Resource Library on July 23, 2008 with permission of the Florence Griswold Museum. It pertains to an exhibition that was on view at the Museum October 5, 1996 - January 5, 1997. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Florence Griswold Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Taking the Road Not Taken: American Works on Paper from a Private Collection
by Charles Price
There are two kinds of collector: the kind who buys what is known and guaranteed and will supply a reputation for "taste" and the kind who buys for the love of the works. The first follows trends in fashion; the second relies on a visceral response to the work of art itself. I suppose you could say that any kind of collection is a form of self-realization, but it is the one which relies wholly on personal choice that most clearly reveals the passions and prejudices of the collector. Those who have formed the collection exhibited here are of the second type.
The collection has been made within certain limits. All the works are on paper and, although oil paint can be used on paper, these have been done with pencil, charcoal, pen and ink, silverpoint, watercolor, or pastel. Then they are all, with one exception, works by American artists working between the middle of the nineteenth century and the present day. In that century and a half radical changes have taken place in American art but of these there are almost no signs among these works. Each has a recognizable subject and has been executed with more or less realistic intent. Finally, they are all of modest size, not that drawings and watercolors cannot be large, but that this collection was formed with intimate enjoyment in mind. One might say that works on paper are a kind of chamber music of art.
In a way, the modesty of much drawing, its limited size, and sometimes its purpose as preparation for larger projects have tended to make drawing seem unimportant or, at least, less important than painting. It has been one of the better results of recent thinking about art, that there has been a reassessment of relations between mediums. Alfred Stieglitz, whose influence on early modern art in America outweighed the modesty of his gallery "291", and who was an early champion of the photograph as a legitimate medium, did not permit conventions to influence his exhibition policies.
Such egalitarianism of value has been manifested in the inclusiveness of twentieth century art, extending to untraditional means of expression including television, neon tubing, words, or arrangements of bricks, stones, or metal. On a more modest level it has allowed us to see drawings with new eyes and to enjoy them for their difference.
Interestingly, although drawings have often been thought of as steps leading to more ambitious work, the earliest drawing here, a tiny work in pencil by the father of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848), which looks like a first compositional thought for a painting, is a highly-finished work complete in itself. No known painting ever emerged from Indian Summer. On the other hand, the pen and ink drawing by Eugene Berman (1899 - 1972) is a compositional sketch for the painting Tobias and the Angel (private collection). Born in St. Petersburg, Berman eventually settled in the United States becoming part of a group known as Neo-Romantics. Here he was as well-known for his work in theatre, opera, and the ballet as he was for his painting. And it is, no doubt, his passion for theatre that led him to a style based on works of the Baroque.
Only in the tiny sketch by Cecilia Beaux (1855 - 1942), who was, in her lifetime a successful portrait painter, do we see an artist making a quick note of something she has seen: Couple Watching the Sea. Cecilia Beaux is one of many artists who were famous in their lifetime and then experienced a sort of eclipse. The collection is especially rich in the work of women now almost unknown. The once respected Elizabeth Nourse (1859 - 1938), Elizabeth Knowles (1866 - 1928), Ellen Robbins (1828 - 1905) and Rosina Emmett Sherwood (1854 - 1948) are represented by accomplished and charming works. Elizabeth Nourse was even famous enough in France to have exhibited regularly in Salons and to be the first American woman elected to the Société Nationale de Beaux Arts. Rosina Sherwood, although married and with five children, was able to have a successful career as an artist. Her drawing, Cynthia Holding Baby Ros, is a tender glimpse of two of her daughters.
One of the great rediscoveries of recent years has been that of Lilian Westcott Hale (1881 - 1963) whose extraordinary drawings have made her the most admired draughtsman of the Boston Impressionists. Born in Hartford, Lilian Westcott went to Boston to study at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts under the Boston Impressionists Edmund Tarbell and Philip Hale, to whom she was eventually married. She was certainly a splendid painter, but it is her astonishing drawings that are now most admired. Using charcoal or Wolff pencils, and working within a limited system of value, she transformed the reality of her models into visionary experience. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Veil where the dropping lines of palest gray become a metaphor for the subject, a bride enclosed in an envelope of light.
The remarkable sensitivity to the pearly beauty of nuanced tone found in The Veil is akin to the delicacy of silverpoint drawing. Silverpoint was a technique used in the early Renaissance. It was revived at the beginning of this century when a spirit of nostalgia and experimentation led many artists to try techniques long out of use. A silverpoint is simply a silver wire inserted into a wooden handle and used to draw on a specially prepared surface. The Head of a Woman by Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851 - 1938) is an example of the evanescent effects obtainable with silverpoint. Dewing, born in Boston, trained in Paris, and ultimately established in New York, was one of the group formed in 1897 and known as The Ten. His work was much affected by the aestheticism of the latter end of the nineteenth century and is almost always concentrated on the figures of beautiful women in a world from which all ugliness has been excluded.
A friend of and fellow student with John Singer Sargent in the studio of Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, James Carroll Beckwith (1852 - 1917) has, unlike Sargent, been nearly forgotten. A skillful but academic portraitist, his drawings are the work of a careful draughtsman immersed in the study of Renaissance portraits. The echoes of Italian Renaissance art brought him fame in the years close to the end of the last century, and Beckwith was one of the muralists invited to contribute to the Worlds Columbian Exhibition of 1893. The Renaissance inspiration is especially evident in the Profile portrait exhibited here with its echoes of Ghirlandaio, Piero and other artists of the fifteenth century. In this, and the drawing An American Queen, Beckwith used pastels with charcoal but with such reticence that one is hardly conscious of the color giving warmth to the cool charcoal.
Such vigorous draughtsmanship does not always undergird pastels. When they are used as a sketching medium, as when Rosina Sherwood portrays the action of her daughters, Cynthia Holding Baby Ros, or Julian Alden Weir shows one of his daughters In the Pram, or John Twatchman draws the Brook in Summer on his property in Greenwich, the crayon moves broadly over the colored paper allowing the ground to show through the pastel, a manner of working with this medium employed by James McNeil Whistler and perhaps devised by him. As in the case of Whistler's pastels of Venice, this manner of using the crayons need not be confined to the sketch but can serve expression. The Hartford-born Louis Orr (1879 - 1961), better known as a print maker, captures the mother-of-pearl light permeating the early morning mists of the city in Manhattan Skyline by means of the broken color of chalk on a toned ground.
Pastels, however, have also been used to approximate the density and appearance of painting. They always retain, nevertheless, the texture and surface peculiar to the medium. The greatest pastelist of the nineteenth century, Edgar Degas, found in pastel a way to draw in color. He worked in an unprecedented way, rubbing, erasing, fixing, steaming, dissolving the crayons in a liquid medium or any trick that would serve the end he sought. Americans rarely employ such devices, not even Degas' friend, Mary Cassatt, who used pastels as often as she did paint. It was probably she as much as Whistler who alerted American artists of the turn of the century to the usefulness of the medium.
Rich effects can be obtained with pastel and their ease of manipulation and the attraction of their dry and granular textures have appealed to American artists right down to the present. Not all American Impressionists were looking for a sketch-like quality in their pastels. The Bostonians found more of their Impressionism in Vermeer than in Monet, and like the Dutch painter sought to study light as it falls on tangible materials. Edmund C. Tarbell (1862 - 1938), who was also a member of The Ten, used the medium in Profile to capture the glowing warmth of solid human flesh. As a teacher at the School of The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, he was to influence the next generation of artists, but new ideas arriving from Europe meant that these younger artists found their audience only in provincial Boston.
There came a time when realism again became respectable and a more recent work to be seen here, I Walk in the Garden Alone, done in 1994 by G. Daniel Massad (b. 1946) is both a pastel, as finely finished as Tarbell's, and infinitely real. Real, however, in an enigmatic way. The title, taken from an old Gospel hymn, and the group of rock ledge, rose, and twigs pose a question by their juxtaposition and are explainable only in terms of the influence of surrealism.
Realism would seem to be an indigenous trait of the American mind and a current of realist painting and drawing continued through the 1920s and 1930s. As part of this stream there were the works of Edward Hopper, Charles Burchfield, and Reginald Marsh to assure an audience that the real world exists. Two of these painters were Rockwell Kent and Paul Cadmus.
The versatility and energy of Rockwell Kent (1882 - 1971) was astounding. As a painter, engraver, author, illustrator, polemicist and adventurer, he has no counterpart among artists of his time. His journals and published accounts of traveling in virtually unknown places were popular and were richly illustrated with his drawings. Wilderness, his first book, was an account of a year passed with his young son on an island in Alaska. Subsequently he sailed to Tierra del Fuego, and in 1929, was shipwrecked on the coast of Greenland. His introduction to that remote landscape and population led him to return in 1931 - 1932 to live among the Eskimo. From these encounters emerged books, drawings, paintings and watercolors. Greenland Mountains is one of these works recording the impact of that grand, cold and hostile land upon him.
In every way a contrast to Rockwell Kent is the Connecticut artist Paul Cadmus (b. 1904). Rockwell Kent's fiery political stances -- he was once the target of an investigation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities -- remained largely political actions, with little impact on his art. Paul Cadmus on the other hand achieved notoriety with his paintings. In 1934, his painting The Fleet's In was to be exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery. The Navy Department stepped in to prevent the exhibition of a painting that so pointedly satirized the morals of American sailors, especially offensive since it had been painted under the auspices of the Arts Project of the WPA. Although his satiric vision of modern life has not abated, Cadmus is best known now for his drawings of the male nude. Revealing his admiration for Baroque grandeur, these demonstrate a mastery of anatomy rarely found these days. A small pencil drawing Reading conveys some sense of his skill as do the witty still-life drawings. Who else could make the two halves of a seemingly innocuous egg box carry so much sexual freight as Cadmus does in The Apartment.
What may well be the most attractive works in their collection are the watercolors, in part because they employ color and thus have a resemblance to paintings. In fact they take their place somewhere between drawing and painting. Rockwell Kent's Greenland Mountains is quite clearly a drawing that has been colored. William Trost Richards' Truth to Nature covers the underlying structure so much that it reads as a painting.
Water-based pigments have been in use since the Middle Ages, but it was in late eighteenth century England that watercolor painting came into its own, when, at the hands of Thomas Girtin, Richard Parkes Bonington, and above all J.M.W. Turner, it came to be used as a versatile instrument of expression. Coincidentally it was in the same period that landscape painting, long considered a minor genre, came to the prominence it retained through the nineteenth century. The development of the use of watercolor moved hand in hand with that of landscape.
It was J.M.W. Turner who did most to raise the reputation of watercolor. Hitherto treated as an inferior method of tinting drawings, Turner proved that watercolor could be used to achieve a grandeur equal to, but differing from, oils and that it was, above all, a medium perfectly fitted to the recording of light and atmosphere in the landscape. The development of the medium by the painters of the last generation of the eighteenth century led to a burgeoning school of watercolor painting in England. So sudden was the rise that by 1805 a Society of Painters in Water-colour was established in London, soon to be known as the "Old" Watercolour Society to distinguish from the "New" founded only two years later.
Americans were slower in taking up watercolor. It had, of course, been used earlier for botanical, ornithological, and topographical recording, but was seldom thought of as an art. In the middle of the nineteenth century, and inspired by the English, all this changed. Inspiration came in two forms: the first was the example of Turner with whose late style Americans like Thomas Moran became familiar when they visited England; the second impulse was that transmitted through the writings of John Ruskin, the most influential critic of the nineteenth century, and the example of the English Pre-Raphaelites.
Of the first tendency, that of emulating Turner, Thomas Moran (1837 - 1926) was probably the most important American example. He did not conceal his admiration of the English artist, whose work he had seen in London while there in 1861 - 62. In oil paintings and in watercolor Moran sought to record the grandeur of the American landscape as Turner had done for the European. To find this sublime landscape, Moran turned to the spectacular scenery of the American West, the last evidence of that wilderness that had long been associated with the American continent. His watercolors tend to form two groups. There are many, rather cursorily drawn, that are the result of working on-the-spot. Others, and they include Hot Springs, Yellowstone, one of the first pictures to enter this collection, are done with careful delineation of the geological facts involved, and might have been inspired by Ruskin.
This precision brings Moran closer to those American painters who took up the second option. These young artists were more concerned with the tangible facts of domesticated nature than they were with its grander spectacles. They knew of recent directions in English painting and of Pre-Raphaelitism through the writings of John Ruskin, whose ideas were proclaimed by his friend at Harvard, Charles Eliot Norton. The most important shift in English painting at the mid-century came about with the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. A group of precocious young painters, dissatisfied with the direction that English painting had taken for fifty years (which they regarded as a debased and trivialized remnant of the once great Baroque tradition), turned to earlier work, that done before the High Renaissance, and to a philosophical basis of "truth to nature". In 1857 - 1858, their paintings could be seen in an exhibition shown in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. The impact of these paintings and their philosophical foundations were soon adopted by Americans.
What the American Pre-Raphaelites rejected were the idealizations and conventions of the Hudson River School as represented by Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, or Jasper Cropsey. There was a direct link with England in the figure of Thomas Charles Farrer who, though born in England, had emigrated to New York in the late 1850s. A group of young Americans gathered around Farrer to hear the new gospel of "truth to nature". In 1863 they formed the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art and for a short time published a journal called The New Path to explain, defend, and justify their ideas. At bottom, these were summed up in the statement of one of its members, Charles Herbert Moore: "It is the artist's first duty to be true to the real...". In the few years of its existence, the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art included in its membership Thomas Charles Farrer, John Henry Hill, John William Hill, Charles Herbert Moore, Robert J. Pattison, William Trost Richards, and Henry Roderick Newman, of whom Newman and Richards are represented here.
Understandably the preoccupation with naturalistic detail represented by the New Path led to a concentration on small aspects of natural phenomena and this collection includes numbers of small and highly realistic paintings of plant life. There are George Henry Hall's sketch of Roses, Ellen Robbin's Wild Strawberry, Elizabeth Nourse's Peonies and the Anemones of Henry Roderick Newman. Among the most interesting are the watercolors of Quince Blossoms and A Water Lily by the nearly unknown Haddam, Connecticut artist, Oliver Phelps Smith (1867 - 1953). They sound echoes of the work of a very well-known artist, John LaFarge, which may not be too surprising since Smith was a designer of stained glass at a time when the stained glass of John LaFarge challenged the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Perhaps the most surprising of the studies of the life of plants are the works of an Estonian baron, Ernst von Maydell (1888? - 1961) who, as the Russians pressed in on his native land, fled to Munich and ultimately to the Swiss Alps. In these years he lived in almost total seclusion painting flowers and other plants, precise in their botanical description, but transformed by fantasy like that of the fairy painters of England. In the 1950s his work was widely exhibited in the United States, including a 1952 show at the Wadsworth Atheneum, yet now he is virtually unknown.
Of the American Pre-Raphaelites the best known is William Trost Richards (1833 - 1905). Nowhere is the hallucinatory quality of New Path painting seen better than in Richards' small watercolor Truth to Nature. Here every leaf and blade of grass seems to be accounted for within the small scope of the painting, and the distant hills, so clearly visible, without intrusion of aerial perspective, gives the work, despite its factual content, the effect of a vision. This concentrated intensity could not last long and Richards' style gradually relaxed as he turned more and more to coastal scenes, especially after he had established summer residence in Newport, Rhode Island and subsequently built a house on Conanicut Island (now Jamestown Island) near Newport. Landscapes like Long Pond, Foot of Red Hill and Rocks, Waves, and Sky are more atmospheric and broadly worked than the intense earlier work.
For certain of his friends, William Trost Richards produced tiny landscapes of a size that could be included in a letter. By this means he alerted patrons to projects that were in the offing or made replicas of larger paintings he had just finished. Normally these "coupons," as he called them, were accompanied by a notation on the reverse. Rocks, Waves, and Sky does not bear the notations, but its size, 3" x 4 5/8", suggests this as a kind of intimate token.
With the idea of making watercolor assume the substantiality of oil paint, the New Path painters and their followers often used gouache, an opaque watercolor. But the influence of Pre-Raphaelitism was fairly short-lived, and as more Americans used watercolor as a serious medium, it was its transparency that came to be exploited. With this shift, watercolor became a major art.
As is well-known, the impact of two years spent in Tynemouth on the North Sea coast of England during the years 1881 - 1882 changed both Winslow Homer's (1836 - 1910) manner of life and the character and quality of his art. After his return to the United States, he retired to Prout's Neck on the coast of Maine where henceforth he devoted himself almost entirely to the coastal landscapes painted in both oil and watercolor. The tight drawing of earlier work, such as that seen here in the two studies of a young girl's head, gave way to broad movements of the brush. In transparent watercolors, he depicted the Maine coast, the Caribbean, and hunting and fishing excursions to the Adirondacks.
A generation younger than Homer and highly social as against Homer's reclusiveness, John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925) was, at least technically, Homer's most serious rival as a watercolorist. His work is sometimes thought to be superficial, in part because of its dash and spirit, but more because of his association with society portraiture. His watercolors were the product of relaxation, done between sessions of portrait painting or as he travelled. Any subject at these times, if they supplied a challenge in the handling of light and movement, would serve his purpose. Lady in a Bonnet is one of several watercolors capturing his companions in informal gestures under the brilliant summer's light.
The standards set by Homer and Sargent set a challenge for painters of the twentieth century. One of these, whose capacity for the realist interpretation of landscape and who has yet escaped the fame of his contemporaries like Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, is Ogden Minton Pleissner (1905 - 1983). In the 1920s, at the Art Students League, Pleissner studied painting with Frank Vincent DuMond. He claimed to be self-educated in watercolor, adapting principles he had first applied to oils. He turned to watercolor when, as a captain in the United States Air Force, he was stationed in the Aleutians. In that erratic and moist climate he needed a medium that would be both quick-drying and easily transportable. Although he continued to use oils, his watercolors became more numerous and more admired.
Released early from active service, he became a war artist for Life magazine. This assignment took him to Europe where he followed the progress of the War through England, France, Italy, and Germany. In his movements during the war, he discovered potential subjects everywhere and in subsequent years, he and his wife spent long periods in France, Italy, Portugal and Scotland. Back at home they settled in rural Vermont, having a house and studio built near Pawlet.
Thus he found himself in hunting and fishing country and, an enthusiastic sportsman himself, he fell in with the sporting elite who became his friends and often his patrons. Excursions in the hills of Vermont, on the rivers of Canada, and across the moorland of Scotland supplied the subjects for what are probably his best known works: landscapes with the incidental figures of hunters, fishermen, and dogs.
In the 1930s, one voice was heard, encouraging American collectors to look to works on paper as a field hardly as yet traversed. The voice was that of our most knowledgeable scholar in the field, Agnes Mongan, who, as keeper of the distinguished drawing collection of Harvard's Fogg Museum, knew whereof she spoke. In a 1934 review of a drawing exhibition in Buffalo, that she wrote for Art News magazine, she isolated some of the pleasures of works on paper:
Sixty-two years have passed and in that time some collectors, enjoying the moderation and intimacy of works on paper, have formed notable collections. In the past two years, two of the greatest of these collectors have donated their collections to public institutions; the Eugene and Claire Thaw collection to the Morgan Library and the Ian Woodner Collection to the National Gallery of Art. Both of these are remarkable for their concentration of Old Master drawings. There are still hidden paths untrodden and our collectors have taken one of these, choosing works by American artists who are well-known but, more, they have rediscovered names that are hardly known, even to art historians. If private collectors have a tendency to conceal their treasures, these collectors have been generous enough to share their discoveries with us.
Checklist of the Works (Size indicated refers to sight size.)