New Clark exhibition sketches narrative of western drawing

Drawn to Greatness tells the story of a visionary collector and examines five centuries of western drawing. Photo courtesy of the Clark.

Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection opened this weekend at The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. The massive exhibition houses 150 drawings from the Eugene V. Thaw collection, belonging to the late art dealer and collector Eugene V. Thaw and his wife, Clare Eddy Thaw.

Accompanying the exhibit is a catalogue raisonné with a dedication that states: “For Clare,” who died in June of last year. A month ago, in true Romeo and Juliet fashion, Eugene V. Thaw also passed away. Indeed, the exhibition itself offers an air of romance as we near Valentine’s Day. Drawn to Greatness functions as a final valentine from Eugene to Clare, offering an intimate window into the collection the couple built together.

Drawn to Greatness displays Eugene V. Thaw’s passion for collecting. “I can’t create the objects I crave to look at,” he once said, “So I collect them.” Per the suggestion of Clare, Eugene began collecting art in conjunction with the Morgan Library and Museum, where the current exhibition was first on display this winter. His collection began, properly, with a wedding gift – a Moustiers faience piece of pottery. Drawn to Greatness covers the evolution of the Thaw collection as well as the evolution of drawing as a medium.

The works themselves offer an element of intimacy; the drawings read as raw expressions of the artists’ hands. Carl Philipp Fohr’s Studies of a Greyhound and a Mastiff includes a brief note from the artist, while Hilaire-Germain-Edgard Degas’ Two Studies of Dancers features both vertical and horizontal renderings of a dancer; one can imagine a struggling Degas flipping his sketchbook around to maximize drawing space. Another level of privacy is delightfully breached by the letters of Vincent Van Gogh in the collection. His letters to his young colleague Émile Bernard and contemporary Paul Gauguin reveal his feelings of both angst and accomplishment. In Letter to Émile Bernard, 19 June 1888, with sketches of a sower and a wheat field, Van Gogh’s love for the countryside is apparent through both his writing and sketch. He wrote, “I don’t hide from you that I don’t detest the countryside—having been brought up there, snatches of memories from past times, yearnings for that infinite of which the sower, the sheaf, are the symbols, still enchant me as before.” Van Gogh accompanied these words with a study of what would become The Sower.

While many of the charcoal sketches in the collection would later become famous finished paintings, Thaw was adamant that the drawings stood on their own. “Most of my drawings turn out to be pictures in themselves, rather than sketches for something else,” he is quoted saying in the catalogue raisonné. Indeed, pieces like Matisse’s Grand Visage I (Lydia) feel fully finished, and this abstract black-and-white sketch fills its custom frame. Throughout the exhibition, the pieces complement their intricate frames; each piece from the Thaw Collection was thoughtfully framed by the couple in a way that most museums cannot afford. 

The exhibition is set up chronologically, spanning from the dawn of the Renaissance to contemporary times. Degas’ dancers are on display as well as a Picasso collage, but the crux of the exhibition lies in its intimate offering of artists’ earlier work created before they found their signature styles. Looking at a Jackson Pollack piece void of any splatter paint, one visitor whispered, “I can’t believe this is Pollack —it looks like Chagall.” The work, Untitled [Drawing for P.G.], is full of Native American forms and fantastical creatures. More startling still is Piet Mondrian’s early piece Dunes near Domburg, a romantic landscape sketch from the famous minimalist artist. Georges Seurat’s The Black Horse is also worth lingering on, if only to understand that we all start somewhere. These pieces are just a few of the 150 on display in the lower lobby of the Clark and The Eugene V. Thaw Gallery for Works on Paper in the Manton Research Center. The exhibition runs until April 22, and students are encouraged to attend a private evening viewing at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 16 with remarks from the exhibition’s curator, Jay A. Clarke.

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