Morgan Library, a Last Bastion, Shows Off High-Art Treasures

You can count the number of New York museums still committed to the cause of high art on the fingers

You can count the number of New York museums still committed to the cause of high art on the fingers of one hand. Perhaps the most enduring of those fingers is the Morgan Library. The Morgan has always been a gem, of course; New York’s cultural heritage would be poorer without it. Yet now, at a time when many of our museums are pursuing agendas that smack of P.T. Barnum, the Morgan, by sticking to its aesthetic guns, has taken on renewed importance. I won’t go so far as to claim that it’s helping to keep the barbarians from the gate-though there are days when it sure feels like it-but the Morgan does remind us that art is something to be safeguarded as well as celebrated.

The museum’s current exhibition, David to Cézanne: Nineteenth-Century French Drawings , is a typical summer show in that it gives the host institution a chance to air out its storage racks-and the Morgan’s storage racks are more stellar than most. In fact, the only time David to Cézanne threatens to rub one’s eye the wrong way is with a couple of charcoal drawings by Odilon Redon, an artist whose fantastic images are looking hokier with each passing year. Other than that, the good stuff is plentiful. I want to avoid list-making-the danger in writing about this kind of show-but let me mention a few favorites. Delacroix’s Christ on the Cross (1846-63) is an amazing drawing, one whose staccato virtuosity only goes to reinforce its painful grandeur. Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun looks out at us from a self-portrait that is puckish and winning. Constantin Guys’ Women in a Carriage (1865) contrasts the stateliness of its title characters with the verve of the horses hitched to the carriage. It’s a droll and deft charmer.

The Morgan show also includes eight drawings by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres; these alone qualify it as a must-see. The pliability of Ingres’ line is, as ever, astonishing. In Portrait of Madeleine Chappell (1830), we see not only Ingres’ bosomy if somewhat distant wife but the artist himself-a rare and tensely situated self-portrait. If Charles-Désiré Norry was as much of an ass as Ingres made him out to be in a magnificent pencil drawing from 1817, then I’m happy to be meeting him at a historical remove. The depiction of Santa Maria Maggiore is as finely wrought as a spider’s web, and students of anatomy should seek out Ingres’ perceptive studies of the human form. Finally there’s Odalisque with Slave (1839), a meticulous, sumptuous work that staggers the intellect even as it seduces the eye. Ingres’ silly-putty distortions of the human form often verge on the ridiculous and just as often escape from it altogether. Here they contribute to an uncanny eroticism. With this masterwork, Ingres has provided David to Cézanne with its hothouse centerpiece.

David to Cézanne: Nineteenth-Century French Drawings is at the Pierpont Morgan Library, 29 East 36th Street, until Sept. 8.

The Hunger Artist

We’ve all heard stories about artists who go to extremes for their work, but few stories can match that of the American modernist painter Middleton Manigault (1887-1921). Manigault, whose art is currently the subject of an exhibition at Hollis Taggart Galleries, looked for inspiration in realms well beyond ordinary experience: He took to fasting, a practice he hoped would reveal a palette otherwise unavailable to him. Whether he discovered that palette we’ll never know: “Starves to See New Colors” read the headline of his New York Times obit. But Manigault’s death may well have been a symptom of mental illness-fasting was also his way of allaying “frightful attacks of blues and tempers.” Even if it wasn’t the ultimate artistic self-sacrifice, the idea that he might have died for color does convey the tenor of this painter’s ambitious, if markedly scattered, art.

It may seem unfair to complain that Manigault was scattered. After all, he did die young; who knows what he might have accomplished had he lived? Still, Manigault’s “ceaseless experimentation”-to borrow the title of a catalog essay-is so pronounced, even on the evidence of Hollis Taggart’s attenuated retrospective, that one is unsettled by the work’s inability to take hold. We follow Manigault from some brooding early pictures influenced by his teacher, Robert Henri, to a not-altogether-convincing brand of Fauvism. Toward the end of his life, he devoted himself to drab, Renoiresque exotica. Along the way, he found time to dabble in abstraction, ceramics, watercolors and “fantasy constructions.”

It was in the early teens, however, that Manigault achieved his most convincing work. In his depictions of Central Park, New England towns and an “adagio” of six cadaverous women, Manigault pursued a highly decorative and neurasthenic art. This latter quality is evident in his compression of pictorial space, and also in the apocalyptic clouds hovering over various panoramas.

The influence of Albert Pinkham Ryder is plain to see, though Manigault was too self-aware a painter to qualify as the visionary he’s made out to be. He came close-even an oddball like Ryder might have blanched at Manigault’s The Clown (1912), an acrid mix of mawkishness and dread. Couple that with two or three of Manigault’s other symbolist pictures, and you have his gift to history. If that gift is small and troubled, it’s still more than most artists leave us with.

Middleton Manigault: Visionary Modernist is at Hollis Taggart Galleries, 48 East 73rd Street, until July 19.

Morgan Library, a Last Bastion, Shows Off High-Art Treasures