Thaw Collections Are Majestic Lessons In Connoisseurship

Of the many intellectual faults that have plagued the study of art in recent decades, one of the least forgivable has been the campaign to discredit the idea of connoisseurship. At the outset, about a quarter-century ago, it was a campaign largely confined to university art-history departments, where training in connoisseurship-which concentrates on aesthetic distinctions-came to be more and more disparaged, at times even vilified, in favor of sociological and political standards in assessing artistic achievement.

Inevitably, this campaign spread to the museums and the media as our academic institutions turned out cadres of art-history graduates to serve as curators and critics. Since their training disposes many of these graduates to regard the study of art as a branch of the social sciences-if not, indeed, as a political science-this is the primary intellectual perspective they bring to their curatorial and critical endeavors. As a consequence of this folly, it’s not uncommon to find curators and critics in high places who are simply incapable of making an independent assessment of the aesthetic quality of the works of art they address. Hence their abject reliance on the reputations and fashions of the moment.

The good news, however, is that connoisseurship is alive and flourishing elsewhere-most conspicuously among independent collectors, who, through patient study and analysis of the specific objects that interest them, have proven again and again to be fully capable of distinguishing aesthetic quality from its absence. These independent collectors are the unsung heroes and heroines of the art world, and not only because of their exemplary judgment, but also because they remain the principal donors of great works of art to our museums.

I have been vividly reminded of all this once again by two current exhibitions: The Thaw Collection: Master Drawings and Oil Sketches, Acquisitions Since 1994 at the Morgan Library, and Nomadic Art of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From the collections of drawings that have been assembled by Eugene and Clare Thaw since the 1950′s and donated in stages to the Morgan Library, we have come to expect both top quality and remarkable scope, and the latest survey of their acquisitions adds something new: some 49 oil sketches on paper and canvas dating from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Outstanding among them is a superb landscape by the English master John Constable, A View of Hampstead Heath (circa 1821-22), with its breathtaking masses of clouds in a brilliantly illuminated sky. The biggest surprises, however, are likely to be found among the many drawings and oil sketches by German and Scandinavian artists. Museumgoers who have lately discovered the work of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916) will be pleased to find an exquisite pencil drawing by him, Study for Interior of San Stefano Rotondo, Rome (1902); and admirers of the German painter Adolph von Menzel (1815-1905), who now enjoys something akin to a cult status, will be thrilled by the undated drawing, Sleeping Youth, His Head and Arm Resting on the Back of a Sofa .

Nor have Italian, French and Dutch masters been neglected in this latest selection of the Thaws’ drawings, for strongly represented, too, are works by Vittore Carpaccio, Ingres, Delacroix, Degas, Pissaro, Redon, Mondrian, Morandi, Seurat, Corot and Rembrandt. It all adds up to a tremendous feast for the eye and the mind-and a feat of connoisseurship that is without equal in recent times.

The sheer scope of the Thaws’ artistic interests has long been recognized in the art world; Mr. Thaw is also a recognized authority on the work of Jackson Pollock. But nothing could have prepared us for his latest collecting project: the more than 200 objects, largely drawn from his collection, in the exhibition of Nomadic Art of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes at the Met. Dating from the 10th century B.C. to the second century A.D., these small, sometimes miniature sculptural objects in bronze, gold, silver and jade were produced to serve as horse harnesses and chariot fittings, belt ornaments, garment plaques, weapons and vessels. Dominated by animal imagery, which at times is highly realistic but also given to fantastic stylization, they are certain to be a revelation to visitors of the exhibition.

According to James C.Y. Watt, chairman of the Met’s Department of Asian Art, “The present-day knowledge concerning the art of the nomadic world is insufficient for a systemic art-historical exposition.” Undaunted by this lack of documentary literature, Mr. Thaw has assembled a dazzling collection of these bizarre and often enchanting objects, and the Met has responded to still another of his feats of connoisseurship by mounting this exhibition in an installation that is exemplary both for its design and its discreetly informative wall texts.

One of these days, when training in connoisseurship is restored to its rightful position in the academic study of art history, collectors like Eugene and Clare Thaw and institutions like the Morgan

Library and the Metropolitan Museum will be remembered for upholding appropriate standards while the tenured radicals in the universities betrayed their academic responsibilities. Meanwhile, for anyone who wants lessons in connoisseurship, The Thaw Collection: Master Drawings and Oil Sketches is on view at the Morgan Library through Jan. 19; and Nomadic Art of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes: The Eugene V. Thaw and Other New York Collections remains on view at the Met through Jan. 5.