Von Bülow Fund Yields Beautiful Nobodies

The best thing about Tales and Travels: Drawings Recently Acquired on the Sunny Crawford von Bülow Fund, now on view

The best thing about Tales and Travels: Drawings Recently Acquired on the Sunny Crawford von Bülow Fund, now on view at the Morgan Library & Museum, is that it’s filled with nobodies: artists whose achievement has become the purview of specialists. There are a few big names—among them J.M.W. Turner, Eugène Delacroix, Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jean Antoine Watteau and that untouchable paragon of the draftsman’s art, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. For their pieces alone, Tales and Travels qualifies as a must-see.

But, really, who’s heard of (or missed) Jacob Hoefnagel, Thomas Shotter Boys or—feminists take note!—Maria Sibylla Merian, whose Black Tegu Lizard (Tupinambis teguixin) (undated) is a prize curiosity of the Morgan’s collection? Most of the drawings are less eccentric than Merian’s; few exhibit mastery or a strong individual vision. Proficiency is the rule, but within the overall context of Tales and Travels, mere expertise is more rewarding than you might expect.

The Morgan Library’s Sunny Crawford von Bülow Fund was set up in 1977—three years before its benefactor mysteriously lapsed into the coma that led to the highly publicized conviction (and subsequent acquittal-on-appeal) of her husband, Claus von Bülow, for her attempted murder. Most of the drawings acquired through the fund have been a collaborative effort between the museum’s curators and Cosima Pavoncelli, daughter of Sunny and Claus. The exhibition is, in effect, an underplayed, almost surreptitious 30th anniversary celebration of the fund’s establishment.

Landscapes and architectural studies predominate, as do watercolors. While focused primarily on 18th-century art, the collection doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive of the period. Some drawings fill holes in the museum’s collection, but they equally reflect the curators’ personal taste. Yet the collection isn’t arbitrary—it’s shaped by a specific, peculiar and consistent aesthetic, with Ms. Pavoncelli’s consuming interest in British art evident throughout the show.

The fund’s initial gift to the Morgan was Ingres’ Portrait of Charles-Desire Norry (undated), a typically penetrating and not altogether flattering portrait of an aristocrat. Monsieur Norry’s smugness is simultaneously embodied, ratified and redeemed by Ingres’ sinuous dexterity and clarity of means. The nearby Portrait of a Young Boy (c. 1793) can’t match its incisiveness for good reason: Ingres was 13 years old when he made the thing. For a teenager, it’s an amazing drawing.

Pieces by canonical artists are, if not definitive, then sterling. Watteau’s convivial line animates The Temple of Diana (undated) in distinct contrast to the offhand affectlessness of David’s An Alpine Landscape with a Horse-Drawn Carriage (undated). John Sell Cotman’s clumpy way with watercolor is recommended, as is Turner’s Dartmouth Cove (1819-1820). In it, engaging miniaturist narrative enlivens a monumental landscape enveloped in a milky atmosphere. Revelers cavort, flirt and sleep off drunkenness, providing the painting with a lively charm.

A single example of François Boucher’s cloying expertise—the red chalk Seated Young Woman (undated)—is as much as any reasonable person should suffer his frivolous gift. Less talented, but more fascinating, is the little-known Louis-Nicolas de Lespinasse (1734-1808). Before becoming an artist, Lespinasse served in the military, going on to earn membership in the royal order of St. Louis. Unlike today’s go-go careerists, Lespinasse didn’t exhibit his art publicly until the ripe old age of 44.

Lespinasse’s The Reception of an Ambassador by the Grand Vizier at His Yali on the Shores of the Bosphorus (1790) and The Presentation of an Ambassador to the Sultan in the Hall of the Petitions of the Topkapi Place, Constantinople (undated) are as unwieldy and thorough as their titles. They’re weird, too: Lespinasse was fanatical about perspective. The pictures propel us back in space with an alarming, headlong rush. His interiors are huge, and the attention paid to architectural detail—particularly the patterned walls in Topkapi—is ridiculously intricate.

Myriad figures populate Lespinasse’s spectacular and overpowering tableaus—in The Grand Vizier, they are innumerable. (I stopped counting at 59.) Dwarfed by their environs, they nonetheless hold their own: Lespinasse adroitly orchestrated his tableaus into meticulously rendered clusters—look, especially, at how he coordinates the angles at which figures are situated. The drawings, done in graphite, pen and brown ink, watercolor and gouache, and then heightened with white, are all the more daunting for their size: Each one is barely larger than an 8½-by-11-inch sheet of paper.

Von Bülow Fund Yields Beautiful Nobodies