New York is at this moment the happy, temporary home to a combined collection of master drawings that would be the envy of the greatest drawings cabinets from London and Paris to Amsterdam and Berlin. Sheets by Mantegna, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt, Goya, Van Gogh, Picasso, Cezanne and Matisse—to name only a few of some of the most renowned—are on view at the Morgan Library and Museum (on loan from the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich) and the Frick Collection (on loan from the Courtauld Institute Gallery, London).
Having previously worked as a curator in the field of Old Master drawings many years ago—from publishing in specialized journals and organizing exhibitions to making acquisitions for my museum—it is an area of some familiarity to me. I was however unprepared for the impact of Dürer to de Kooning: 100 Master Drawings from Munich (at the Morgan until the 6th January). Not one or two, or even several, but many of the sheets included in the exhibition from Munich were large-scale—I mean really big, and by artists of the first rank. Someone less acquainted with the field might wonder why that would be so significant, but imagine a 16th– or 17th-century piece of paper changing hands over the years, mounted in various albums, being trimmed, cut, divided into smaller sheets for sale, and generally just surviving the vicissitudes of time. Also consider that the American drawings collections familiar to most of us, by virtue of having been formed later than most of their European counterparts, contain more examples less choice in terms of condition or significance. The core of Munich’s collection was formed by the Elector Carl Theodor of the Palatinate beginning in 1758.
The first drawing in the show is a good example. Andrea Mantegna’s Dancing Muse is a large, 20 x 10 inch sheet that is either a drawing for or a record after one of the figures in a painting made for the famed Isabella d’Este, the Parnassus of 1497, now in the Louvre. A good argument is made for it being preparatory for the painting, and in any case, drawings and paintings by Mantegna are exceedingly rare and much prized. There are only a few of his pictures in America; his sculptural, relief-like style was much admired in his day and ours. It is a significant drawing, both in terms of size and importance, made with lapidary skill in pen and brown ink, the highlights of the muse’s garment heightened in white paint.
Yet another rare Mantegna drawing is included in Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery at the Frick Collection (until the 27th January). Its sketch of the flagellation of Christ matches the Morgan’s example—if not in scale, then in incisiveness—the present sheet made probably in preparation for an engraving. The two exhibitions see-saw back and forth, one’s Leonardo, Pontormo, Dürer, or Picasso matched by the other. This makes for a very special opportunity to directly compare these two great European collections, almost side by side, or at least some thirty or so city blocks apart.
The Courtauld Institute and its collection (it is the premier program for art historical studies in the British Isles) were formed only in 1932 (both collections’ formations are described in perfunctory introductory essays in the respective exhibition catalogues; the individual catalogue entries are rather more interesting). While not based on an old princely collection like the Elector Carl Theodor’s, but mainly on the efforts of four private collectors (Lord Lee of Fareham, Samuel Courtauld, Sir Robert Witt, and Count Antoine Seilern), the quality of the Courtauld drawings measures up to Munich’s due no doubt to the direct access to London’s Old Masters market.
The two exhibitions go toe-to-toe on Michelangelo; it is both thrilling and instructive to be able to compare two such critical examples by this supremely significant artist. The earlier example is from Munich, Michelangelo’s drawing after Masaccio’s fresco of St. Peter and the Tribute Money (1426-27) in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence. That first biographer of artists, Giorgio Vasari, documents this drawing and others, noting that the artist copied Masaccio’s frescoes when about seventeen years old, around 1492. Already Michelangelo demonstrates here a mastery of form—while certainly a copy of the innovative earlier artist’s composition—it is still infused with a life all its own. He uses a hatching and cross-hatching pen stroke that, as the catalogue entry notes, is akin to chisel marks on sculpture. And the drawing—a foot tall—depicts a monumentally volumetric St. Peter. These Munich drawings—as they say in the profession—have wall power.
But then there is the Courtauld’s drawing by Michelangelo, Il Sogno (The Dream), from around 1533. This is a “presentation” drawing—a highly finished work of art in its own right (as opposed to being drawn in preparation for painting or sculpture or as a simple sketch). In fact, the independent drawing can be said to begin with Michelangelo; this drawing is just such an example. Once again, Vasari tells us that the artist made a number of these finished drawings—Il Sogno may be one of these—for the handsome young Roman nobleman, Tommaso de’Cavalieri, with whom perhaps he was in love. The subject is an enigma, a beautiful and idealized young male nude with the “genius” of fame trumpeting above, dream-like scenes of love and warfare in the background, all drawn in black chalk in Michelangelo’s highly polished, later style.
It is a work of art of the highest caliber and a tribute to the collecting acumen of Count Antoine Seilern who formed the Prince’s Gate Collection, given to the Courtauld some forty years ago. This is how the two shows complement and contrast with each other beautifully, as in this case. Both exhibiting works by Michelangelo, one a sketch—a copy to be precise—from early in Michelangelo’s career and the other, a highly finished drawing from the mature phase of his career; one a sketch after another artist and the other an independent work of art.
There are other Italian beauties—another great comparison is Munich’s marvelously frank Self Portrait (1510/12) by Fra Bartolommeo, in which he candidly depicts his own aged visage. He was a Domenican monk who ranked alongside the giants of the Italian Renaissance as one of the most talented artists of the day. Less well known are his sketches made out of doors—a highly unusual practice at the time—the Courtauld’s landscape drawing by Bartolommeo, c. 1495-1509, is a fine example. Possibly taken drawn from the Valle del Mugnone looking towards Florence, it is one of only three landscapes drawings that can be connected to backgrounds in his paintings.
One would expect the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich, would be strong in Northern drawings but that this is true of the London selection as well is impressive. Not only are the two Dürers memorable, but especially also were the two incomparable sheets by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (a major artist not found in the Morgan exhibition). They were both engraved; one features a typically Brueghelian village festival from 1559 and another, a storm on the estuary of the river with a view of Antwerp, also from around that same year.
Interestingly, the two exhibitions also go toe-to-toe on Rubens. In this case, with two of the largest drawings the master produced (remember what I said about scale?). The Munich sheet—at almost 30 inches in height, the largest drawing ever made by Rubens—portrays the Duke of Lerma, the young Philip III of Spain’s most powerful official. However, as Lerma never sat to Rubens, the face used as a stand-in was (and in point of fact, the composition was derived from an image of) Charles V (surely flattering to the duke). It is a highly finished composition study—doubtless made for Lerma’s approval. The Courtauld’s Rubens is also highly finished, and is probably, like its Michelangelo, a presentation drawing, a work in its own right. It shows the artist’s very young, second wife, her angelic face framed by a veil and an elaborate headdress. The epitome of Rubens’ art, combining both a compelling naturalism with artistry of the highest order, it was surely lovingly drawn.
Little, however, prepared me for the sheer scale and splendor of Munich’s drawing by Mattias Grünewald. This 16th-century German painter’s fame is deservedly enormous, despite the fact that only 26 paintings and 29 works on paper survive by which we can judge him. His impact endures for the mystical, expressionistic qualities found in his work, especially in his Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-16; Colmar, France), one of Western Civilization’s artistic touchstones. The drawings of women on either side (only the recto of the woman, hands clasped in prayer, is on view) can be associated with both the Virgin Mary and the Magdalene on Christ’s right in the altarpiece. The drawing’s emotional tenor lends a mystical spirituality while the absolute carnality of the woman’s hands gives it a believability. It is not difficult, as a result, to understand Grünewald’s lasting significance and appeal.
As delighted as I was to become acquainted with the unfamiliar Munich collection, I knew well the Courtauld selection. Many years ago I consulted their collection while I was organizing J.M.W. Turner, “That Greatest of Landscape Painters”: Watercolors from London Museums (The Philbrook Museum of Art, 1998), for which I borrowed the two Turners included here. While Colchester, Essex from the Picturesque Views in England and Wales (c. 1825-6) is arguably the finest in that series of finished watercolors made for subscription engravings, Dawn after the Wreck (c. 1841) is the most moving.
The famed critic and artist John Ruskin, Turner’s greatest champion, had very definite ideas about Turner’s work, taking it upon himself to be his chief interpreter as well. Whether or not this highly finished, yet in feeling magically spontaneous, watercolor supports Ruskin’s tale—a ship lost at sea, “all hands lost,” the sole survivor, a dog, howls on shore mourning his master—is debatable. However, the blood-red tinged sky—Turner’s color of destruction—and his narrative powers make a good case for this poignant little masterpiece’s message of loss and loyalty.
So many more drawings in both exhibitions remain unexamined here—the superb lot of 19th-century French drawings from the Courtauld (mainly all from Samuel Courtauld’s own collection) or, not surprisingly, the excellent groups of 19th-century German and German Expressionist works from Munich (most of its French and British drawings were destroyed during World War II). Furthermore, Munich has endeavored to move its collection into the present day and so presents an interesting group of works on paper by Willem de Kooning, David Hockney, Sigmar Polke, Michael Heizer and others.
However, we will end here with Picasso, as both the Courtauld and Munich also share examples by the hand of this giant of Modernism. The Courtauld’s drawing of a female nude (1920-21) dates from his neo-classical phase; Munich’s Female Nude (1905-6) is redolent of Picasso’s interest in the “primitive”—here combining a Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf in her ample sensuality with the influence of African art seen to full effect less than a year later in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907.
These superb exhibitions at the Frick Collection and the Morgan Library draw attention to two collections which clearly deserve to be better known. At the same time, they together offer an unrivalled education in the draftsmanship of many of Western Civilization’s greatest artists, through some of their finest drawings.