WILLIAMSTOWN — The art dealer and collector Eugene V. Thaw died last month, at 90. His wife, Clare, had died in June; she was 93.
Thaw spent the time after his wife’s death putting finishing touches on “Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings From the Thaw Collection,” an exhibition spotlighting his gift of more than 400 sheets to the Morgan Library & Museum. The show, which opened in September, closed four days after he died.
Any thoughtfully crafted collection has a life to it, studded with gems and thrumming with associations. This one is like love letters written with the pens of artists from Andrea Mantegna to Pablo Picasso: Intimate, in the moment, uncertain, funny, earnest. Sometimes raw and sometimes polished. Having lost Clare, perhaps Thaw saw shepherding “Drawn to Greatness” to completion as his last obligation to the passion they shared.
That exhibition opens this weekend at the Clark Art Institute. The Clark had close ties to the couple, as well; a portion of the show is in the Eugene V. Thaw Gallery for Works on Paper.
It’s a magnificent showcase. The 150 sheets (25 more than at the Morgan) are organized somewhat chronologically, and make a spindle around which 500 years of history revolves: Technologies change, regimes fall, empires spread, markets rise. And always, artists turn to their drawing boards.
But drawing changed, too. Once it was chiefly a recording tool; the Renaissance made it a tool of invention. Northern European artists such as Rembrandt and Rubens synthesized those approaches, using their pens to describe and compose, and to reveal inner lives. In charting the evolution of a medium, “Drawn to Greatness” tracks Western culture’s ever-adapting perceptions of self and society.
The show’s scope is epic, but the works are mostly small (and framed, it must be said, with marvelous idiosyncracy). Some are simple studies — the earliest piece is a sweet, puckish series of boys’ heads from the studio of Pisanello — but many are finished drawings. The Thaws preferred pictures to the thoughtful scratch of ideas being worked out.
The trace of the artist’s hand on the page is always immediate; the sense of touch and the draughtsman’s proximity while working plays against the span of centuries. Step in front of any of these sheets, and you might be there yourself, pen in hand. Drawings, not shackled by paintings’ self-importance, are chatty and democratic. They offer a candid peek into history rather than a visual declamation of it.
That’s not to say the show lacks bravado and drama: Look at Jorg Breu the Younger’s “Artybio on Horseback Attacking Onesilus,” a whiz-bang ancient Greek battle scene. On gray paper with white highlights, it looks eerily moonlit. Breu pulls out the Renaissance’s full complement of anatomical precision. Onesilus is doomed: Artybio drives his lance into the soldier’s shoulder, and his mount takes the poor lad’s head in his giant equine mouth.
All in less than 7 inches across. Another marvel of drawing: the exacting detail on a small scale pulls us into urgent little worlds.
The Thaws had a great affection for the Tiepolos. Giovanni Domenico’s Tiepolo’s drawings, in particular, are a far cry from the luminous rococo paintings we associate with him and his father, prone to light social commentary. In the waggish “Scene of Contemporary Life: The Chaperoned Visit, or the Presentation of the Fiancé,” every line is devoted to caricature. An enormously pregnant woman, face comically obscured by a giant bonnet, greets the engaged pair, who are the height of fluff.
The 19th-century sheets in the Thaw collection are fresh and often fevered. Revolutions and societal upheavals rocked France and Spain; aristocratic patronage fell away. Photography changed the way artists framed scenes; gas, then electric light changed the palette. Neoclassicists such as Ingres and David brought with them the clean lines and modeling of the ancien regime, but romantics such as Delacroix and Turner bit at their heels.
Ingres made a living drawing the well-to-do. “Portrait of Madame Adolphe-Marcellin Defresne, born Sophie Leroy, 1826” a simple graphite drawing, is wonderfully sharp, elegantly linear. Our eyes go straight to the contented young matron’s face, and her thick, daintily curled coif; the farther we get from there, the less detail Ingres provides; she’s all loops and ruffles.
Compare her to Henri Fantin-Latour’s “Portrait of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891),” made nearly 50 years later, a watercolor and gouache vision of the dewy poet as fever dream, hair a silky halo around his head.
Among the Impressionists, Degas was the master draftsman, always experimenting. He drew “Mademoiselle Bécat at the Café des Ambassadeurs” in pastel over a black-and-white lithograph. Footlights flush the stage with smudgy, pungent tones — aqua! ocher! sweet, candy pink! The artist has sketched audience members into the dark foreground, turning up the heat on the small performer bowing into the light.
Thaw coauthored Jackson Pollock’s catalogue raisonné, and the Pollock sheets here are stunning: raw, guttural, automatic. “Untitled (Abstract Ram)” rumbles with loops and sweeping verticals, a ram’s head floating blank-eyed in the middle. Pollock gouged and scratched his blue ground right off the page. He drew as part of his psychoanalysis; if we like, we can read into this work virility facing off against helplessness.
As a dealer, Thaw sold everything from Rembrandt to Pollock to Native American art. In an era when art connoisseurship grew more specialized, his tastes remained catholic — as the breadth of the Thaws’ drawing collection attests. How often do you run across an exhibition that embraces Jan Breughel the Elder and Richard Diebenkorn?
Yet both puzzled out space and mass, light and line, transparency and opacity, medium and substrate. We can imagine them conversing. As, it seems likely, the Thaws did.
DRAWN TO GREATNESS: Master Drawings From the Thaw Collection
At Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, through April 22. 413-458-2303, www.clarkart.eduCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.