Ask an artist. Often, they’d rather see another artist’s sketches and drawings than completed paintings or sculptures. Drawings show how deftly one can capture a line, how quick is his or her vision.
Color seduces. Line reduces. Drawings are unembellished. They’re pure. They give a glimpse of what the artist was thinking—where his or her head was at. By that criterion, John Constable’s head was in the clouds.
Through September 13th, the Frick is exhibiting Landscape Drawings, an exhibition culled from its holdings of works on paper. The Frick Collection is known for its superb collection, sought and bought by an extremely discerning and well-advised eye with incredibly deep pockets. Ian Wardropper, director of the Frick said, “It’s a small collection but, piece for piece, as good as any collection in the world.” The works in this exhibition prove his point.
Landscape Drawings includes exquisite pieces by the likes of Titian, Rembrandt, Corot, Whistler and Claude Lorrain (widely known as just Claude, a sure sign he was a big-ticket item, like Michelangelo and Leonardo, Bono, and Beyoncé).
John Constable’s two cloud sketches, painted on paper, share a wall and anchor the exhibition. They are part of a series of studies the artist made, painted plein-air, as were most of the works in the show. Constable became famous during his lifetime for big, sprawling visions of the English countryside, stocked with cathedrals and castles, or farmers and cows. But, for many, it is these small oils on paper that shine as his greatest achievement.
Constable once commented “I am a man of the clouds.” Clouds were his bread and butter; no matter what he was painting, his landscapes are all about the skies. During the summers of 1881 and 1882, he painted dozens, if not hundreds, of observations of clouds, often noting on the reverse the time and weather. It’s marvelous to see how the two Cloud Study works in the exhibition break into patches of color up close, but resolve into three dimensional forms from a few feet back. To see true genius, notice how, with the utmost control and a flick of the wrist, Constable dragged his brush through the wet paint downwards, opening one grey cumulus into a fall of rain.
A work attributed to Titian (ca. 1488–1576) depicts a Landscape with a Satyr. With careful lines, a scene from mythology springs to life yet remains anchored in reality, thanks to the precisely portrayed city in the background.
Far from precise is Whistler’s Nocturne, Venice from 1880. It’s both a whisper and a shout. It’s all soft tones and hazy details, but those very characteristics caused an uproar. Whistler debuted his Nocturne series just a few years earlier. They were moody, atmospheric interpretations that did not sit well with the public or critics who expected a picture to look like something. In Whistler’s Nocturnes, one can barely make out details, and that’s the point. He titled many of works “arrangements” as they were about color and form primarily, and subjects and places only incidentally. He believed so strongly about the new direction of his work—tiptoeing towards abstraction and modernism—that he sued London’s top art critic for a scathing review and won. Whistler’s was a bittersweet victory, since it just about bankrupted him. Because he still had to earn a living, he rarely again produced the hazy, blue-black beauties with suggestions of shapes like the Frick’s piece.
Rembrandt was the master of everything he touched. In his paintings, he plied the paint to an almost sculptural level to achieve astonishing effects of light. It was joked at the time (the 17th century) that one could pick up a Rembrandt portrait by its nose. Landscape with Cottage, Trees, and Stream, from about 1650, shows absolute mastery of another sort. Here, it’s all about the economy of line. Trees and shrubs sprout from rapid strokes that convey the sense of foliage, fullness, size and the type of light that hits them. The entire foreground consists of maybe a dozen lines, but brings to life soft banks and a gently flowing stream (dulled by a grey wash added by some later artist seeking to improve on a Rembrandt).
It’s amazing to see these artists’ ability to create something from nothing, as a slip of paper and a few drops of ink become a world.
The selections in Landscape Drawings do more than just present beautiful works on paper. Through astute curatorial choices, they also give a short, but solid sense of the progression of art from the Renaissance right up to the edge of Modernism. From Titian’s classical scene, through Rembrandt’s Baroque vision, to Constable and Claude and Romanticism, we reach all the way to the Whistler that anticipated and informed Impressionism. On a side note, they also make a strong case for the Frick’s need for more exhibition space. They’re tightly installed in The Cabinet Gallery, which is about the size of—you guessed it—a cabinet.
Works of art on paper are fragile. Many of them spend the majority of their time locked away from light, in regulated environments, rarely making it to gallery walls. It would be a shame to let Rembrandt’s stunning village, Titian’s satyr, Constable’s clouds or Whistler’s Nocturne slip back out of sight, unseen.