The Museum Talk: Masters of American Drawings and Watercolors: Foundations of the Collection, 1904–1922 at Carnegie Museum of Art

The current special exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Art provides a rare opportunity to view 75 American drawing and watercolors collected by the first director of Carnegie Institute of Art (John Beatty) during the first two decades of the 20th century. Based on a museum conservator’s comment, ideally paper works should not be exposed under light for more than 16 weeks per year, thus such treasure has never be integrated into the permanent collection in the museum. Among them, there are works by Winslow Homer, James McNeill Whistler, William Glackens, and Frederick Childe Hassam.

The works by Childe Hassam are mostly pencil and ink drawing. He chose different types of paper to provide the prime color for each work: some brown, some black and of course some white. The effect in general is bold and almost graphically decorative. In particular, he took advantage of the inherent contrast between ink and colored paper to emphasize light and shadow: some more protruding, some more coherent, depending on the similarity between color tones.

Homer started his career as an illustrator for Harper’s weekly. His pencil drawings are quite unique and interesting. But in my mind, it is his water-colors that should be valued the most since they have not been equaled ever since. In the current exhibition, the rare occasion provides two works of his famous theme: Proust’s Neck: one in pencil drawing and one in water-color. Both are efficient and foreboding. The water-color, eliminating the view of sea, projects the anxiety of waiting by carefully scaling the people with the nature. In contrast, the pencil drawing is more economical. He did not try to convert the value of colors into black and white, thus the figures in the drawing are exposed to a world rawer and barer.

It surprised me that Frederick Church sketched two mermaids holding a skull, something that is beyond the scope of accuracy and clarity that he’s familiar with. On the other hand, it does make sense that it was the painter who sketched the unseen and magical, endured all the inconvenience and sufferings to paint exotic scenes of both Arctic and South America.

Thomas Moran’s fondness of light effect is obvious on his only drawing in the exhibition. On the same wall, a pencil drawing of trees by Sanford Gifford bears the distinctive hazy and suffuse characteristics.

Lastly, a work by John Beatty’s contemporary and friend Alfred S. Wall also surprised me. As one of the initial trustees to the Carnegie Institute, his oil works are displayed at both Carnegie Museum of Art and Westmoreland Museum of Art. Among Wall family, I like A. S. Wall the most. William Coventry Wall is too meticulous and controlled while A. Bryan Wall is loose in paint brush while tight in subjects. The scene of Western Pennsylvania under A. S. Wall is mundane, un-idealized. It is not totally untamed, yet not luminous or sensational either. Instead, in that small picture on the middle of the wall, Wall painted the diminishing scene of uncultivated nature with traces of human beings, and infused them with a sense of nostalgia.

Such scene may be forever gone in the current Pittsburgh metro area, but through the carefully preserved artworks it can be still be imagined and appreciated, until Oct 7, when they are put back into storage.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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