Monday, July 11, 2011

An Eighteenth-Century Weekend

This past weekend seems to have been my weekend for immersion in a time period and in two media that I don’t usually look at much – the 18th century and drawings and pastels. There are two exhibitions in these media currently on view in New York.

As I mentioned in my previous posting about the exhibition of medieval fashion at the Morgan Library, on Saturday, I joined two friends for two shows there.

The second, smaller show was “The Age of Elegance: The Joan Taub Ades Collection”. It runs through August 28. The show is small, only 40 items, ranging from the 17th to the 19th centuries, but of amazing quality and interest. The four items that struck me in particular are all 18th century.

Dietzsch, Dandelion With Butterfly
and Caterpillar, Private Collection,
Gouache on vellum
The first two were positioned right inside and next to the gallery entrance.

They are works by the German woman artist, Barbara Regina Dietzsch (1706-1783), someone with whom I have not been previously acquainted. They are paintings of flowers and insects, executed in gouache on black paper, and they are truly amazing. The first is of dandelions (in their puffball stage) and the second is of a tulip. Both are beautifully depicted and feature caterpillars and other bugs. The detail of the drawing and the delicacy of the execution are astonishing. I have never seen such an illusion of diaphanous tangibility in two dimensions before. The exact images are not available online, but I did find an available image that is very close to one of the two in the exhibition.

The second drawing that caught my eye is a small drawing, in red ink, of the mythological subject, “Mercury and Argus”, by Francois Boucher.

Boucher, Aurora and Cephalus,
Red Chalk, New York,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, c.1750
Boucher is not one of my favorite painters, I prefer the work of his younger contemporary, Jean-Honore Fragonard, but I have often been charmed by his drawings. And, so it is in this case. Again, I was unable to find this specific image online, but reproduce a somewhat similar drawing in brown ink. There is a liveliness about Boucher’s drawings that was lost during their transfer to paint. And the red ink drawing at the Morgan is extremely lively.

Grueze, Head of a Sorrowful Woman,
New York, Collection of Joan Taub Ades,
The third object is a drawing by Jean-Baptiste Greuze called “Head of a Sorrowful Woman” and dated to the 1790s. Executed in black and wetted red chalk with stamping and grey wash it conveys a real sense of the inner life of the character depicted. Its soft beauty, wistfulness and freshness hold up well against Greuze’s oil paintings, such as “The Broken Mirror”.
Greuze, The Broken Mirror,
London, Wallace Collection,

On Sunday afternoon, I joined another friend for lunch and a visit to the Metropolitan Museum. On our way to visit her favorite galleries, the Impressionists, we passed the temporary exhibition “Pastel Portraits: Images of 18th-Century Europe”, which runs through August 14 and decided to stop and take a look.

What a fortunate decision! As the introduction to the exhibition notes, this is the first look at some of these works in 75 years.1  The 18th century was probably the premiere era for the pastel portrait and the 40 portraits on display offer us an intriguing slice of this production. Among the works that especially caught my eye were:

    Carriera, Gustavus Hamilton,
    New York, Metropolitan Museum,
    Pastel on blue paper, 1730-1731
  • Portraits by Rosalba Carriera, who was probably the best-known artist working in pastels.
Her portrait of Gustavus Hamilton, (1710–1746), Second Viscount Boyne, in Masquerade Costume, painted 1730–31, was particularly striking, with dramatic color and a great sense of life.

    Copley, Mrs. Edward Green
    (Mary Storer), New York,
    Metropolitan Museum,
    c. 1765
  • There were also three pastels by the American John Singleton Copley, both painted before his move to England in 1774. One is a miniature self-portrait of Copley himself.
The two large portraits on display are of a brother and sister, Mrs. Edward Green (Mary Storer) and Mr. Ebenezer Storer, Jr., both painted in Boston. The portrait of Mrs. Green appears to be among the first that Copley attempted in pastels. It is somewhat stiff and conventional, as though the sitter was seen through gauze.

Copley, Ebenezer Storer, Jr..
New York, Metropolitan
Museum, 1767
However, the portrait of Ebenezer Storer, Jr. from 1767 is amazing. Storer looks out at us with a direct gaze and is so lifelike that you can image meeting him on the street and stopping for a chat.

    Wright, A Philosopher Lecturing with a
    Mechanical Planetary, Derby,
    Derby Museum and Art Gallery,
  • I was especially delighted to see two works by Joseph Wright of Derby, Head of a Boy and Study-- Head of a Woman.

Wright was an English painter much interested in the effects of light and the inventions of his own day in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, often choosing scientific experiments as the subjects for his paintings.  An example of this, is his painting “A Philosopher Lecturing with a Mechanical Planetary”.   The two pastels on display at the Met are unusual in that they are both grisaille, with black, white and grey tones only in use. They clearly demonstrate Wright’s obsession with the effects of light. 
Wright, Study--Head of a Woman,
Grisaille pastels on blue paper,
Metropolitan Museum, c.1770

All in all these two shows made this weekend a fascinating excursion into the 18th century.

© M. Duffy, 2011