Review: 'European Drawings' at the Portland Museum of Art

Historic drawings sketch the way to greater art
By NICHOLAS SCHROEDER  |  March 30, 2011

ACCESSIBLE HIGH CULTURE “[Venetian architectural studies with color annotations],” watercolor and graphite on paper, by James Holland, 1857.
"European Drawings" is the Portland Museum of Art's contribution to "Where to Draw the Line: the Maine Drawing Project," a year-long series of historical and contemporary drawing exhibitions at 16 Maine galleries and art institutions. These shows aim to trace the process and practice of drawing as an artistic and formalistic vehicle rather than a dominant medium, and this installment, which features smaller sketches and studies from nearly 30 prominent European artists, makes a fine place to start.

Though the works span from the early 19th to the early 20th centuries and come from a number of regions, the exhibition evokes an underlying historical theme. An evolving attitude towards class is evident in these figure studies, landscapes, and architectural studies; the artists of the period, either by subject or approach, are seen slowly shifting their attentions from the individual to the social.

Jean-Auguste-Dominigue Ingres's "Portrait of the Honorable Frederick Sylvester North Douglas, Son of Lord and Lady Glenverbie," aptly represents this shift. Ingres was famous for his colorful, early-modernist portrait paintings. Though his inclusion here is slightly ironic (he loathed making portrait drawings, called the work "cursed"), it captures the era's tensions and changing attitudes around portraiture, as artists began to experiment with non-natural colors and depictions. Ingres's knack was for portraying diversity of character in his subjects, and in his 1815 portrait of Sylvester — although in graphite — his subject appears noble, sporty, and dignified, yet betrays slight traces of vanity and menace in his leering eyes and a forearm sheathed in his coat.

Just as vanity will inevitably yield comedy, from portraiture comes caricature. The two most formidable caricaturists collected here are George Grosz — whose "Typen (Characters)" (1926) depicts three Berliners in crude fat lines, in a satirical oafishness that became his signature style — and John Leech, an English cartoonist whose illustrations appeared in Dickens novels. The two Leech pieces here, "The Conversazione" and "Drinking the Waters at Goslar," are satires of high and low society. In the former, a ballroom is disproportionately stuffed with anxious aristocrats, while the latter depicts a constable hiding (or hoarding?) a bottle of water in a busy street scene.

Five Samuel Prout pieces anchor the architectural-studies unit of the exhibition, showing the artist's skillful draughting, warm tone, and splashes of vivid color. In various states of roughness, many of these scenes portray the intersection of mundane street life before the masterful archway, a scene he'd later perfect in "A View in Nuremberg." James Holland's "[Venetian architectural studies with color annotations]" is a plein-air study of spires, towers, and statues, a colorful pastiche of the floating city's aerial composition. Despite its high-culture subjects, the rough collage quality of Holland's drawing lends it an accessible quality, giving it a similar feel to Prout's works.

Some fine sketches of 19th-century movements from European masters are also included. A Millet charcoal, "Reclining Figure with Sleeping Child," predates his seminal peasant studies, while in "Femme nue assisse (Seated Female Nude)," a Renoir drawing of red chalk on paper, a woman is rendered in fine early Impressionist form with a fuzzy, pulpy contour, almost like a piece of fruit.

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