WCMA shows gems in the rough

Walk into Works as Progress/Works in Progress, a small new exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), and you might feel as though you are entering a 19th century salon in Paris. Given that the show primarily consists of loans from Paul Tucker ’72, whose private collection encompasses a large swath of the French Royal Academy masters, this feeling is more than mere coincidence.

The exhibition, which uses a few select pieces from the WCMA collection to accent Tucker’s private holdings, focuses on the many forms and purposes that drawing took at the Academy. “Drawings can be more than finished masterpieces; they are often an essential part of the artistic process,” the introductory text reads. “Artists have used drawing as a way to refine their skills, organize compositions, generate ideas for paintings and sculptures or simply sketch for pleasure.”

Curated by Amy Bridgeman and Charles Changduk Kang, graduate students in the History of Art program, with assistance from Interim Associate Curator Kathryn Price, Works as Progress eschews a typical chronological arrangement in favor of a more thematic one. The works on paper are grouped by subject matter – a fitting choice, given the exhibition’s comparatively small scope.

As one wanders through the gallery, a central struggle of the exhibition gradually becomes apparent: namely, that between the aesthetic and the didactic. Many of the images that are the most beautiful or striking on their own seem to have less to say about the processes of illustration, while the more interesting lessons to be learned are taught with some of the humbler images in the exhibition.

An initial group of images highlights different French artists’ experiments with illustration in classically inspired modes. Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier’s Honors Afforded to a Victor Standing on a Pedestal (1873) reveals the artist’s mastery in the handling of a classical scene, its delicate wash and expressive line keeping it from looking staid or idealized. The work makes an even greater impression when contrasted with the relatively uninteresting and uber-classical works by contemporaries Paul Delaroche and Alphonse Legros that flank it.

A pleasing sense of continuity is developed as the exhibition transitions into several figure drawings, the best of which are Jules Chéret’s Study of a Woman (1895) and Guillaume Dubufe’s Study of Nudes for Le Théâtre Français (1885). As preparatory works for larger public pieces, both reveal the careful planning that initiated the artists’ processes and their adroitness at capturing the graceful gesture of the female nude. In so doing, these images strike an effective balance between instruction and aesthetic quality.

Some areas of the exhibition fail to walk this line as effectively. These include a section that juxtaposes drawings by Jules-Joseph-Augustin Laurens and Célestin François Nanteuil with the etchings that they made based on the drawings. Here, the images are so uninteresting that one might struggle to care about the message their juxtapositions were meant to convey.

The section devoted to landscapes and architecture is similarly flat, featuring works by Edgar Dégas and Georges Seurat that seem to have been chosen for the reputation of their creators rather than for their individual aesthetic merits. There are gems to be found on this wall, however, including Jean-Léon Gérôme’s A Church Interior (late 19th century), which is perhaps the single best work in the show. Gérôme’s deft handling of his subject’s intricate geometry bears a pleasing contrast with the more painterly application of white highlights, creating an image that is at once arresting and somehow eerily evocative.

The literal centerpiece of the exhibition also happens to be its visual climax, where the aesthetic and didactic thrusts of the show are reconciled in several partial studies of the human form. Eugène Delacroix’s Sheet of Studies (ca. 1820-1827) is striking for its bold, expressive line, giving the studies a sense of spontaneity and vigor. Alexandre Cabanel’s Study of Arms (mid- to late-19th century) has an eerie, unsettling quality, achieved by virtue of the grace and vitality with which the artist rendered the disembodied limbs. This section proves that works can be beautiful and still have something to say about process.

I left the gallery with the definite sense that, even with the intercession of a curatorial team, I had been taken into the living room of a wealthy art collector and given a private tour. Every collection has its gems and its less interesting pieces, and this show does an honest and, at times, stimulating job of convincing you to give all of its selections a chance. In the end, though, it is the individual power of a few standout pieces that makes Works as Progress worth a visit.