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Galleries as drawing rooms at Bowdoin

Mary Cassatt’s “The Barefoot Child” is in “Why Draw? 500 Years of Drawings and Watercolors at Bowdoin College.”
Mary Cassatt’s “The Barefoot Child” is in “Why Draw? 500 Years of Drawings and Watercolors at Bowdoin College.”(Bowdoin College Museum of Art)

A 7-foot-tall portrait of Pharrell Williams, by Alex Katz, immortalizes the oversize mountie hat that the singer infamously wore to the 2014 Grammy Awards. The chalk-and-charcoal drawing might stand out from its peers in the exhibition “Why Draw? 500 Years of Drawings and Watercolors at Bowdoin College” due to its size and subject matter, but its style harkens back to Renaissance-era cartoons.

“It’s fun, actually, to see the Katz in dialogue with drawings from an earlier period, realizing that while he is consciously building on works of the past and on traditional drawing techniques, he has absorbed them and made them his own,” said Anne Collins Goodyear, co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. “It demonstrates to me that even in this digital era, traditional techniques continue to be extremely relevant and important for artists of today.”

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The exhibition, on view until Sept. 3, includes more than 150 works and is the first to explore the museum’s collection of drawings on such a broad timeline and scale. Bowdoin College has a history of appreciating the medium, dating back to a 141-piece collection of European drawings donated to the Brunswick, Maine, school in 1811 by the Bowdoin family. The college has since “become a glue for drawing together many other extraordinary collectors,” Goodyear said, such that curator Joachim Homann had a shortlist of more than 400 works to include in the exhibition.

“I’m very fond of this part of the collection because it’s a growing resource,” Homann said. “It’s quite unique in that it allows us to reflect 500 years of drawing practice in artists’ studios in Europe and America, from the studio of Raphael to contemporary art.”

Through the exhibition, which was in the works for two years, the museum’s team hopes to highlight both the intimacy and immediacy of drawing. The works allow visitors to figuratively look over artists’ shoulders as they record their perceptions of the world, according to Homann.

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“We are so familiar with mostly digital media and tools,” Homann said, “and I think this is a really good time to remind ourselves of what drawing does for us to understand and access the world, lay down information, structure information, and to realize . . . what we can learn from drafts.”

The exhibition displays a number of methods, such as Katz’s use of pouncing for the Williams portrait. The Renaissance technique is similar to tracing and involves an instrument that punctures holes into a sheet of paper. The paper is then laid over canvas, allowing the artist to roll over the perforated lines with a chalk-like substance and transfer the image.

In what Homann cited as one of his favorite pieces, Abstract Expressionist Arshile Gorky “transform[ed] the surface of this sheet of paper almost into a garden in which different shapes grow.” The untitled work, created in 1943 with graphite and colored crayon, showcases drawing’s ability to closely record the movement of hand on paper.

“You’re feeling energized by looking at this drawing, and you feel that there’s an organic quality to it,” Homann said. “The movement invites you to participate in a very visceral way and, at the same time, the component of color makes it really radiant and enigmatic.”

Other materials make appearances as well. Mary Cassatt’s “The Barefoot Child” (1897) highlights an Impressionist use of pastels, and Winslow Homer’s “The End of the Hunt” did the same with watercolors in 1892. A 1767 pastel portrait of Elizabeth Bowdoin, of the namesake family, hangs in the gallery. Bowdoin commissioned Boston native John Singleton Copley to create the piece at the height of pastel portraiture’s popularity.

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What links the eras, Goodyear said, is that the drawings peel through “layers of artistic practice to get to that moment of inspiration itself.”

“At the end of the day,” she added, “the idea that we can approach this moment at which the spark of creativity manifests itself is what makes drawing so extraordinarily thrilling for people to see.”

The museum will host a series of related programming throughout the exhibition’s run, including drawing workshops and talks by curators and scholars. Goodyear said she hopes bold pieces such as Katz’s will draw visitors, but that enthusiasm for drawing and its artistic value will last throughout.

“I hope it will also help people to understand that museums are living institutions,” Goodyear said. “They are designed to stimulate, inform, and inspire the creative processes of audiences today, no matter what period we choose to represent through the projects we curate in our institution.”

Why Draw ? 500 Years of Drawings and Watercolors at Bowdoin College

At Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, through Sept. 3. 207-725-3275, www.bowdoin.edu


Sonia Rao can be reached at sonia.rao@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@misssoniarao.