It is always a pleasure to go to The Frick Collection, where
great paintings can be leisurely enjoyed in an elegant and tranquil atmosphere.
Just now, however, there are several additional good reasons for revisiting The
Frick. First, from Edinburgh has come a marvelous exhibition of The Draftsman’s Art: Master Drawings from
the National Gallery of Scotland . Jointly organized by the American
Federation of Arts and the National Gallery of Scotland, The Draftsman’s Art numbers some 80 items-among them drawings by
Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Rubens, Ingres and Seurat, as well as a miscellany
of works by Scottish, English, Dutch and German masters. Especially for
students and connoisseurs of drawing, this is a must-see event.
Second, there is also on loan from the National Gallery of
Scotland a single painting-Sir Henry Raeburn’s The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch (circa
1784)-which is said to be one of the museum’s most popular works. One can well
believe it. This is a delightful picture-not, perhaps, the most elevated or
profound painting of its kind, but delightful all the same-and it can now be
seen in the company of two other Raeburn portraits from the Frick’s own
Third, from the Greentree Foundation there are six paintings
from the former collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney currently on view
at the Frick: a Corot, a Manet, a Redon, an early Picasso and two works by
Degas, every one a terrific picture. As the late John Hay Whitney was
well-known to be an avid horseman as well as a keen collector of modern
paintings, it comes as no surprise that three of the pictures are devoted to
equestrian subjects-the two by Degas, who made something of a specialty of
horses and their riders, and Manet’s Racecourse
at the Bois de Boulogne (1872), which is
a surprise, as equestrian subjects are a rarity in this artist’s oeuvre .
If one didn’t know better, one might suppose that the Manet
had been influenced by Degas’ many treatments of the same subject. Yet in fact,
as the excellent brochure for the Whitney pictures reminds us, Manet’s Racecourse was actually based on
Géricault’s much earlier Races at Epsom
(1821) and the widely circulated English sporting prints of the period.
Still, the main event at the Frick just now is the drawings
from Edinburgh. As we rarely get to see a da Vinci drawing we haven’t seen
before, perhaps a word of caution is in order about what to expect from this
one. It consists of both sides of a small single sheet called Studies of Paws of a Dog (circa 1480).
Meticulously executed in metalpoint on a pale pink ground, the seven studies of
this dog’s paw are as interesting for their anatomical precision as for the
painstaking quality of their draftsmanship.
Unlike certain other studies in The Draftsman’s Art , however-Raphael’s magnificent preparatory
study for his painting of The Madonna of
the Fish (1512-14), in the Prado, Madrid, or Seurat’s fully realized
drawing of the central figure for the painting of A Bathing Place, Asnières (1883-84), in the National Gallery,
London, the da Vinci studies remain a series of extraordinary fragments. The
fragments of a genius, to be sure, but fragments nonetheless.
In making his selection of drawings for the current
exhibition, it has clearly been the intention of Michael Clarke, the Keeper of
Drawings at the National Gallery of Scotland, to give us a sense of the range
and variety as well as the quality of the museum’s drawings collection, and this
he has certainly succeeded in doing. Drawings of traditional religious
subjects-Rubens’ Calvary , Mengs’ The Adoration of the Shepherds and the
Raphael drawing already cited-alternate with scenes of bourgeois life
(Jeaurat’s Family in an Interior and
accounts of less respectable behavior, Hubert Robert’s Soldiers Carousing and Wille’s A
Tavern Brawl ). As we might expect, landscape abounds in the examples of
English drawings. There is a terrific Turner watercolor, Mount Snowdon , Afterglow ,
and a very fine watercolor drawing by Cozens of The Euganean Hills from the Walls of Padua . As we might not expect,
however, there are many drawings based on literary classics-among them Ingres’ The Dream of Ossian , Alexander
Runciman’s Achilles and the River
Scamander , Sir Joseph Noël Paton’s Faust
in the Witch’s Kitchen and Girodet’s Study
for Racine’s Phaedra .
Not everything in The Draftsman’s Art is a masterpiece,
alas. Paul Sandby’s Horse Fair on
Bruntsfield Links, Edinburgh is the kind of period illustration that doesn’t
travel well. (We learn from the catalogue that Sandby was the chief draftsman
for the Military Survey in Scotland in the later years of the 18th century.) If
it’s horses you’re interested in, you are better off with real masters like
Manet and Degas. The Black Stool
(also known as Stool of Repentance )
by another Scottish artist, David Allan,
is more amusing in a sub-Hogarthian manner, but it too remains provincial work.
The Draftsman’s Art
remains on view at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, through Feb. 25,
and will then travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (March 16 through
June 10). Sir Henry Raeburn’s painting of The
Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch remains on view through
Jan. 21 and will not travel. The Whitney Collection paintings from the
Greentree Foundation remain through July 29.