Marks of Distinction
Two hundred years of drawings and watercolors from the Hood Museum at the National Academy Museum
American futurist Joseph Stella was an avid draftsman who lived by his chosen motto “nulla dies sine linea.” Not a day without a line. It’s a wonderful phrase that goes to the heart of artmaking and the ardor that sustains it. The aphorism belongs over the entry of the National Academy Museum for the duration of “Marks of Distinction: Two Hundred Years of American Drawings and Watercolors from the Hood Museum of Art.” The presence of Stella, a painter we see too infrequently, is one indication of the range and intelligence of this exhibition.
|Common Osprey/Fish Hawk, John James Audubon
Built 20 years ago to house Dartmouth’s impressive and developing collection, the Hood Museum is a recent arrival among venerable New England colleges with substantial holdings of American art. The college began collecting American art in the 18th century with such things as depictions of Daniel Webster, class of 1801, or other illustrious alumni, campus views, and Native American artifacts.
Expanded largely by donation, the collection today is distinguished and diverse, sensitive to historical shifts in attitudes toward content and technique. Its abiding strength is the perspective it offers on the continuum of cultural shifts from the 18th and 19th centuries to the mid-20th. Sociology and ideology blend with aesthetics in ways that are largely invisible until we see the connecting threads laid out. And here they are, from the classical preferences of the early republic, through reflections of Jacksonian democracy to American responses to Impressionism, Modernism and all its progeny.
Take Benjamin West’s ink and chalk drawing “Archangel Gabriel of the Annunciation” (1784) as a baseline. Fluent and vivacious, it illustrates the talent that brought West extraordinary recognition in his lifetime. (He was co-founder with Joshua Reynolds of the Royal Academy and served as elected president from 1792 to 1805, amazing for an American in King George’s England.) Note the continuous, flawless pen line that delineates the angel’s graceful profile and the finely hatched modeling of face, neck and hands. Memorize that animated line and you learn more than any apostle of art appreciation can teach.
John James Audubon’s “American Buzzard” (c. 1810-20) is a glory of stop-action naturalism and considered design, delicately realized in pencil and pastel. The drawing marries artistic expression to the love of scientific inquiry that characterized intellectual life in the early republic. It embodies pre-Darwinian understanding of the natural world as an aesthetic design. Audubon’s rhythmically outlined raptor describes a species with neoclassical clarity and poise.
A sheet of studies from Martin Johnson Heade’s “Thousand Islands Sketchbook” c.1860) offers an intriguing glimpse into the beginnings of luminism. The solid intimacy of these beautiful worm’s-eyeview drawings, concentrating solely on line, mass and shadow, gives no hint of atmosphere, color or light. This hints that the luminous atmospheric effects characteristic of Heade’s landscapes (not to mention the Hudson River School) were studio devices appended to topographical observations. For the splendor inherent in unadorned nature, turn to John Henry Hill’s 1866 watercolor of Lake Winnepesaukee. Water and vegetation are fastidiously stippled, creating a shimmer that recreates brilliantly the effects of air stirring leaves and ripples. Hill exemplifies what makes the Hood a delight: its refreshing enthusiasm for fine regional artists or once-recognized names now undeservedly in eclipse.
Sargeant’s nude figure drawing, a study for “Hell” (c.1910) commissioned for a Boston Library mural, is a perfect counter to contemporary tendencies to see description and expression as polarities instead of crucial complements or—better—a unity. His bent and twisted figure (mark the masterful handling of a foreshortened shoulder), with agitated contours that suggest as much as they describe, conveys anguish more creditably than Joan Mitchell’s untitled generic blur from the late 1950s. Her incoherent smudge is celebrated by the curators as “lyrical desperation”, a nonsense phrase from Frank O’Hara, laureate of Bohemia-in-the-Hamptons. (If you want lyricism, go directly to Blanche Lazzell’s 1920 charcoal of foxgloves.) Mere copying of external appearances is not good drawing. But neither is pointless wandering in the hope of hitting on something worthy of the sheen on an artistic soul. Jackson Pollock’s untitled psychoanalytic drawing (so-called because of his immersion in psychoanalysis at the time) is random and ultimately boring. It calls to mind Robert Henri’s comment that when a drawing is tiresome “it may be because the motive is not worth the effort.” As Pollock found out too late, artists’s emotions are irrelevant except while they’re driving. What matters is the work’s ability to kindle response and the nature of the object toward which feelings are directed.
Be to sure to see William Trost Richards’s dense pencil drawing “Palms” (1856). The abstract splendor of Richards’s tonal contrasts, their flickering shadow play, hold faith with the capacity of line and tone to elevate the mundane. Walter Murch’s magical charcoal and wash “Study #18” (1962) dissolves its motif—a ball set atop a rectangle partially covered by folded cloth—in light. Edges disappear; disembodied, translucent forms float on air to take shape only in the mind of the viewer. And do not miss George Ault’s precisionist “Back of Patchin Place” (1927) or Stuart Davis’s 1928 riff on a Parisian equestrian statue that translates Henry IV into Sancho Panza on a sway-backed Rocinante outside the Samartine department store.
Some of my favorite American draftsmen (i.e. Rico LeBrun, Leon Kelly, Edna Bois Hopkins) are owned by the Hood. Many have been left home in favor of more recognizable names. Nevertheless, the flavor of the collection is intact. Both the National Academy Museum and Dartmouth earn our gratitude.
“Marks of Distinction: Two Hundred Years of American Drawings and Watercolors from the Hood Museum of Art” at National Academy Museum (1083 Fifth Avenue, 212-369-4880).
This review appeared first in The New York Sun, October 20, 2005.
Copyright 2005, Maureen Mullarkey