This exhibition celebrates the remarkable holdings of 19th-century French drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum and the Menil Collection, institutions joined in a collaboration to foster meaningful conversations about drawing. The show includes works on paper by five artists who made major contributions to the development of drawing at the formative beginnings of modernism: Eugène Delacroix, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, and Odilon Redon.
Becoming Modern posits that some of the most exciting breakthroughs in the medium took place in the 19th century as academic models of draftsmanship, traditionally practiced as a preparatory means of study and in anticipation of sculpture or painting, gave rise to the production of independent drawings. Artists began to regard drawing as a space of invention and a crucible for new ways of thinking about the artistic process and the formation of thought, not simply as a space of representation and description. Eugène Delacroix wrote, “I believe that a simple drawing is sufficient to allow one to brood over an idea, so to speak, and at the same time to bring it to birth.”
The diversity of techniques, styles, and methods in the works on view exemplify this desire for innovation. Experimenting with materials, artists were beginning to use drawing as vehicle for personal expression. For example, the manufacture of Conté crayon led Georges Seurat to develop a manner that pushed form to its limits and defied the traditional mode of disegno with blurred contours and vaguely defined spaces on rough, textured paper. Odilon Redon used charcoal to create his noirs.Their velvety surface was an essential element of his often mystical or sinister themes. Artists were also seeking new ways of making a line, using color and developing an artistic language that was uniquely their own. Delacroix, the earliest practitioner of the artists included in the exhibition, is considered the last of the old masters. Yet as a highly original draftsman he is also, arguably, one of the earliest modern artists. His novel and independent approach to the discipline was deeply admired by younger artists, including Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne, who were looking for ways to discover a greater truth through drawing and to capture sensations of light and space. Van Gogh’s expressive vocabulary of marks and Cézanne’s use of line and color stripped away the trappings of tradition.
At the end of a century transformed by new technologies and industrialization, drawing became a means to respond to a rapidly transforming cultural and urban landscape. Paving the way for the avant-garde, these French artists anticipated, through drawing, the radical artistic developments to come in the 20th century.
Becoming Modern: Nineteenth-Century French Drawings from The Morgan Library & Museum and The Menil Collection is curated by Jennifer Tonokovich, Eugene and Clare Thaw Curator of Drawing at the Morgan Library & Museum, and Michelle White, Curator, The Menil Collection.
This exhibition is generously supported by The Brown Foundation; The John R. Eckel, Jr. Foundation; Nancy and Mark Abendshein, Franci Neely; Diana and Russell Hawkins; Janie C. Lee and David B. Warren; Louisa Stude Sarofim; Michael Zilkha; Lazard Frères & Co.; W.S. Bellows Construction Corporation; Peter J. Fluor/ K.C. Weiner; Vaughn Foundation; Mark Wawro and Melanie Gray and the City of Houston.
Photos: Paul Hester