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Indepth Arts News:

"Masters of American Drawings and Watercolors, Foundations of the Collection, 1904–1922"
2007-06-23 until 2007-10-07
Carnegie Museum of Art
Pittsburgh, PA, USA

The first grouping of important American drawings and watercolors acquired by Carnegie Museum of Art will be featured in the exhibition Masters of American Drawings and Watercolors, Foundations of the Collection, 1904–1922, on view in the museum’s Works on Paper gallery June 23–October 7, 2007. In addition to offering an intimate look at the masterful work of American artists including Winslow Homer, James McNeill Whistler, Frederick Childe Hassam, Cecilia Beaux, John La Farge, Maxfield Parrish, Kenyon Cox, and William James Glackens, the exhibition of 75 drawings and watercolors provides insight into the tastes and major trends in American art during the time that the works were purchased. It also educates viewers on Carnegie Museum of Art’s institutional history and the museum’s foundation collection. 

John W. Beatty, who served as Carnegie Museum of Art’s first director from 1896 to 1922, was the driving force behind the acquisition of nearly 200 drawings and watercolors by an array of prominent American artists of the period. With the end of Beatty’s tenure as director in 1922, the museum’s collecting focus shifted and the acquisitions of drawings and watercolors ceased for more than 30 years. When Gordon Bailey Washburn became director, he resumed the active purchase of American drawings and watercolors. 

“By and large these are virtuoso works,” says Amanda Zehnder, Carnegie Museum of Art assistant curator of fine arts and curator of the exhibition. “Some of them are really amazing. The hand of the artist—his or her thought processes really come through.”

The early collection of American drawings and watercolors has significant resonance with the early history of the Carnegie International, the survey exhibition of contemporary art that began in 1896 and continues to the present day. Many of the artists in the collection participated as Carnegie International artists or as members of the exhibition’s jury or advisory committee. Winslow Homer’s painting The Wreck (1896), which appeared in the first Carnegie International, was the first painting acquired by the museum for its collection.

His charcoal drawing Figures on the Coast (1883) was the first drawing acquired by the museum for its collection in 1904.

An artist himself, Beatty was devoted to building a collection that showed the many functions of drawings. He was also interested in the access that the medium offered to an artist’s thought and working processes. Included in the exhibition, for example, are works that are studies for subsequent works. Common categories of the early drawings collection include works made in preparation for decorative schemes or murals, paintings, or publication illustrations. There are also numerous drawings that stand on their own and focus on such themes as landscape, figure studies, and genre scenes. A graphite, sepia, and ink on canvas work by Kenyon Cox, accompanied by numerous drawings on paper, served as scale drawings for the Contemplative Spirit of the East mural for the Minnesota State Capitol. John La Farge’s First Sketch for Three-Paneled Window, One Done in Color (1896) is a preparatory work for a memorial stained glass window project.

An important pastel and chalk drawing by Whistler titled Mrs. Leyland Seated was a study for a dress that he designed. The dress was then worn by Frances Leyland and is featured in one of Whistler’s greatest portraits, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs.Frances Leyland, 1871–1874, which is now housed in the Frick Collection, New York. Works by artists such as Winslow Homer, Howard Pyle, Jessie Wilcox Smith and Violet Oakley and many more demonstrate the strong tradition of book and newspaper illustration in evidence throughout the early collection. In addition to those works that functioned as studies, the exhibition will also highlight the other end of the spectrum when it comes to works on paper: highly finished, autonomous watercolors, pastels, and drawings.

The elegant works seen in the early drawings collection often represented restrained aesthetic trends compared with some of the more radical, avant-garde trends in the art world of the same period. Naturalism, aestheticism, and academic art are dominant trends seen among the artists of the early drawings and watercolors collection. Beatty, who studied painting at the Royal Academy in Munich in the 1870s, believed in the academic tradition of technical skill and delicately evoked mood. He and his advisor, art critic and art historian Sadakichi Hartmann, selected works for the museum based for the most part on the works of living artists, mostly American, in line with Andrew Carnegie’s maxim to build a collection on the “old masters of tomorrow.”

Winslow Homer
American, 1836–1910
Watching from the Cliffs, 1892
watercolor on paper
Carnegie Museum of Art

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