The drawings of Vincent van Gogh have company at the Metropolitan Museum of Art –- lots of it. Although the Met is flush with its wonderful van Gogh drawing survey, not far from this blockbuster are two other drawing shows, both of which deserve a visit.
"From Clouet to Seurat: French Drawings from The British Museum" is a survey show arranged chronologically. Major works and lesser ones jostle for attention. Some key artists are represented by more than one work; others by only a sketch. But the pleasures are many. And lesser-knowns sometimes contribute surprisingly first-rate performances.
The second show, "David Milne, Watercolours: ‘Painting Toward the Light’," presents an abbreviated version of a traveling show by this too-little known Canadian painter and draughtsman. Milne, an early modernist, actually trained in New York City and lived here for many years before returning home to Ontario. More about him in a moment.
An art lover can appreciate the sweep, if not the depth, of the French School by starting with the 16th century works in "From Clouet to Seurat." and going forward. However, especially if you are pressed for time, I would recommend starting at the end and traversing the centuries backward.
The 19th-century offerings are bracketed by portraits. Ingres’ charming double portrait in pencil of Charles Hayard and his Daughter Marguerite from 1815 epitomizes Neoclassicism, while Post-Impressionism is represented by Toulouse-Lautrec’s Portrait of Marcelle Lender from around 1883-85. The direct gaze of Monsieur Hayard, with his arms wrapped protectively around his child, is emotionally light-years away from Lender’s savvy, appraising expression. The harshly chiseled features of Lender, a singer and dancer who infatuated Toulouse-Lautrec, are not conventionally attractive but being artificially brightly lit, they captivate with their flamboyantly eccentric theatricality.
Almost every work in this area bears close looking, but if I had to choose only one drawing to study, it would be Gustave Courbet’s large, lusty Self-Portrait in black chalk and charcoal. Drawn in 1852 on the heels of his first public successes, Courbet reveals more of himself than he does in his later, rougher images. Here, the portrait’s delicate eyelashes, large eyes and well-formed lips hint at the sensitive artist hidden behind the guise of Romantic Rebel, as Courbet often styled himself.
A close second would be Daumier’s mixed media Clown Playing a Drum. Wearing a rueful expression, surrounded by props and the hubbub of the street as he literally "drums up" business, the clown is portrayed without a hint of sentimentality, though Daumier’s nostalgia and appreciation are unmistakable. With this work, Daumier honors the hard work of street performers, who were being replaced by other forms of entertainment.
Two Degas drawings, an Odilon Redon Christ Crowned with Thorns, and two studies for Seurat’s La Grande Jatte, a splendid Victor Hugo of a castle on a crag, and Delacroix’s Studies of a Seated Arab are other delights.
The Neoclassical works are not as rich. The Jacques-Louis David drawings are not nearly as interesting as the prison scene of Philippe-Auguste Hennequin, one of his students. The sheet has an added piquancy in that Hennequin created this exacting ink and wash while a fellow-prisoner. Luckily, the artist survived his ordeal.
The Rococo is well represented with several sheets each by Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard. Could Watteau ever draw anything that lacks immediacy?
Edme Bouchardon, the sculptor, also was a noted and well-appreciated draughtsman. From one of a series of drawings that were later etched, his red chalk Garcon Boulanger, or bakery boy, ca. 1737, presents an engaging visual and psychological description of a young worker. His head down from the weight of his burdensome wicker basket, the viewer gets an unimpeded look at his clothing and other attributes of his profession. He’s a long way from a Boucher nude -- but just as interesting.
There are multiple sheets by Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, but among works dating from the 17th century I preferred Philippe de Champagne’s Study for the Infant Christ in black and white chalk from around but not later than 1648.
The exhibition begins with two impressive black and red chalk portraits from the 1500s, a delicately rendered lady of the court by Jean Clouet, and a more vigorous though no less effective Portrait of King Charles IX as a Young Boy by his son François.
Two other pieces not to miss are nearby: two early botanical drawings by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues.
"From Clouet to Seurat: French Drawings from The British Museum" is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nov. 8, 2005-Jan. 29, 2006. The exhibition subsequently appears at the British Museum, June 29-Nov. 26, 2006.
The show’s catalogue, an excellent investment as it includes more works than those in the abbreviated version of this traveling exhibition shown at the Met, makes a case for Milne’s watercolors leading the way to his paintings and prints. I was impressed by the few oils that I’ve seen in Canada by the artist, so these watercolors were a treat, even if they left me wanting to see more.
Milne’s watercolors fall into three periods. High-keyed New York cityscapes and landscapes, which owe a lot to Maurice Prendergast, whose work he knew, and the Nabis, come first. Milne, not a natural joiner, knew the Eight and participated in many watercolor shows and the Armory Show at the start of his career.
Milne used an illustrator’s feel for flat pattern and design with a flare for color, which he often applies in short strokes, dappling the paper overall. You can see him shifting between various non-traditional approaches to traditional subject matter. He came to a daring balance between abstraction and naturalism in Roofs of New York (1912), Cobalt Trees (ca. 1913) and Wood Interior IV (1914).
Milne’s work gets darker around WWI. He enlisted and at the end of the war produced dry-brush works for the Canadian War Records program to commemorate the Canadian war effort in England and in France and Belgium. Gone are the high-keyed colors, while black haunts his work for the rest of his life.
In Milne’s war drawings perspective plays a larger role, yet his dry-brush and spare use of color invigorates them and gives them a uniquely raw feel, as in Bramshott: Interior of the Wesleyan Hut from 1919.
On his return, Milne moved away from the New York art scene and isolated himself in a wilderness cabin, something he would do for the rest of his life. He concentrated on landscapes and cabin interiors in mainly black, white or both. In the '20s, he created a series of landscapes with reflections from large bodies of water that are considered to be some of his most successful drawings, like Reflections: Bishop’s Pond from 1920.
From 1925 to 1937, Milne stopped working in watercolor. In 1929, he moved back to Canada permanently. He received some recognition, got help from patrons and kept painting in remote locales.
When Milne returned to drawing again, he often used watercolor washes or drew in watercolor, then washed water over the drawing and reworked the piece with added color. His most interesting works from this third and final period are a series of paintings with broad atmospheric washes defining seascapes with islands from 1951 until shortly before his death in 1953.
David Milne’s best watercolors come mainly from the first two periods. His style is achieved during the war years. It’s time to start looking closely at this talented early modernist’s oils.
"David Milne, Watercolours: Painting Toward the Light" is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nov. 8, 2005-Jan. 29, 2006. Already seen at the British Museum, the exhibition subsequently appears at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Feb. 25-May 21, 2006.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.