The Cleveland Museum of Art’s new exhibition on French drawings shows the growth of an outstanding collection

CLEVELAND, Ohio — There’s always something new to learn about the oldest and most familiar stories in art history. This is especially true of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s impressive new exhibition of 19th-century French drawings in its collection.

As an exhibition of light-sensitive works on paper, the show is a rare event. On view through June 11, the free exhibit features works that are destined to return to storage, perhaps for years before reappearing. This is an opportunity to grab while it’s available.

Organized by Brittany Salisbury, the museum’s associate curator of prints and drawings, the show retraces the story of the pivotal role played by French art in the rise of modern art, as generations of young avant-garde artists rebelled against the conservative traditions established by the leading formal art school in the country, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

With nearly 50 examples dating from the late 18th to early 20th centuries, the show traces the trajectory of French art from Neoclassicism to Impressionism and the bouquet of post-Impressionist styles that soon flourished.

A collection is growing

The show also traces the growth of the museum’s collection of 19th-century French drawings, showing how the relatively young museum, opened in 1916, competed with other, more established East Coast museums to build its exceptional holdings.

The labels accompanying the drawings include registration numbers indicating the year the individual drawings joined the museum’s collection, along with the names of the donors or the funds used to purchase the artworks. Notable names include those of Jeptha H. Wade II (1857-1926), one of the museum’s founders, and Leonard S. Hanna, Jr. (1889-1957), one of its major benefactors.

Most importantly, the show presents or re-presents, depending on the background, some of the world’s most famous artists, including Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Edouard Manet, Georges Seurat, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Cézanne and Edgar Degas.

Drawing is a direct, informal and intimate form of art making. Artists then and now often made drawings as a way to rehearse for larger and more “finished” compositions in painting or sculpture. Drawings can also be considered finished works in their own right. In the case of the museum’s new show, each artist can be identified by the stunning ability to paint with virtuoso confidence in a very specific and recognizable way.

The magic of touch

The magic of painting lies in the artist’s touch. It is a form of performance in which, as with the touch of a great pianist at a keyboard or a violinist moving a bow across strings, there is no place to hide. All is revealed.

Ingres’s touch in his monochromatic portraits and studies is pristine, sharp, elegant, supremely controlled. Degas, who was inspired by Ingres, works in a way that seems faster, more abbreviated, more open to making marks that are very sure, but also rough and textured, revealing the grain of the paper it’s on worked.

Lautrec’s lines are highly descriptive, witty and witty, but also fluid, with whiplash elasticity. In Seurat’s mysterious drawings with deep black pastel, the line disappears. In the case of one of the museum’s drawings, “At the Paris Concert,” 1887-88, a 1958 purchase made with funds donated by Hannah, textured fields of dark and light merge to describe a cafe scene , in which a top-hatted gentleman listens to a singer on a stage lit by gaslight.

How did the French manage to be so good at painting, and how did the theories and styles they explored prove so influential in the history of modernism?

The Ecole des Beaux-Arts is partly responsible. The official academy and the schools inspired by it based their training on drawing the human figure either from plaster casts of ancient classical sculptures or from live models. This boot camp provided a foundation that artists could then honor, adapt or reject.

The museum’s show offers a supreme example of a life drawing in a pair of images made in 1810 in black and white chalk by artist Pierre-Paul Proudhon, depicting a female model on one side and a male model on the other side of a single sheet of light blue paper. It was part of a cache of more than 100 examples found in Prud’hon’s studio at his death in 1823, according to the show’s catalog.

Ingres, who epitomized the classical tradition in 19th-century French art, used his highly polished academic technique in large, formal paintings of historical and mythological subjects favored by the official Salon de Paris, the annual or biennial exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

He also created portraits of elite contemporaries, including Madame Désire Raoul-Rochet, the subject of an extremely fine drawing made in 1830 and acquired by the Cleveland Museum in 1927 with money from a fund established by Wade.

The viewer of Ingres’s drawing was the wife of a curator at the National Library of France, who later became permanent secretary of the Academy of Fine Arts. She was also the daughter of the famous French sculptor Jean-Antoine Hudon, known for his portraits of Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

The drawing, made with graphite, a form of crystallized carbon often used in pencils, is composed of delicate, highly descriptive lines and soft hues that convey an almost photographic sense of accuracy and verisimilitude. Although clearly made with a series of successive strokes, the drawing is so unified in its technique that it appears as if it appeared on the sheet of paper with a single, effortless breath.

Depiction of modern life

The drawings of later artists in the generally chronological exhibition embody the desire of later generations of French artists to embrace images of contemporary life, whether depicting city dwellers or rural peasants.

Outstanding examples include Honore Daumier’s 1863 drawing of top-hatted art lovers viewing an exhibition, and Rosa Bonneur’s observational watercolor and pencil drawing of a stag lying in a field, made between 1875 and 1885.

There is also an impressive 1836 drawing of a young shepherdess by Jules Dupré, acquired by the museum in 2009 as part of a bequest from collector Muriel Butkin.

Outlined in black chalk, the drawing depicts a seated girl wrapped in a heavy cloak, holding a staff that she uses to guide her flock. Occupying a middle position between a sentimental depiction of rural life and a depiction of child labor, the drawing has a vivid sense of modernity created by the white pastel the artist uses to highlight the sky behind her, which emphasizes her physical presence.

The show’s centerpiece, perhaps, is a trio of magnificent Lautrec drawings, including an 1893 oil-and-tempera work on millboard depicting Monsieur Beaulot writing silly stories about the Parisian demimonde for a tabloid.

When the museum acquired the work in 1925, it was the first unique Lautrec work, as opposed to a print or poster, acquired by an American art museum. Cleveland was up front in his embrace of Lautrec, known for his starkly observant and often brutally candid depictions of nightclub dancers and prostitutes.

In addition to powerful examples of works by Degas, Manet, Cézanne and their contemporary Odilon Redon, the exhibition includes an illuminated drawing from 1890 by Armand Pointe, a lesser-known figure who deserves more attention.

Skillfully using pastels, the Algerian-born artist depicts his fashionably dressed longtime model and companion Helene Linder climbing steps on a path by the Seine River at sunset.

Acquired just last year, the image captures the romance and beauty of Paris in an image that could be taken from a Hollywood movie. It also shows that the Cleveland Museum’s excellent collection of French drawings continues to grow.

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