Drawing Distinctions 

VMFA's new Mellon exhibit touts the art of the sketch.

click to enlarge An 1816 sketch of the Rev. Joseph Church by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres is one of the brilliant works on display in a new Virginia Museum of Fine Arts exhibit, “Corot to Cezanne: French Drawings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.”
  • An 1816 sketch of the Rev. Joseph Church by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres is one of the brilliant works on display in a new Virginia Museum of Fine Arts exhibit, “Corot to Cezanne: French Drawings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.”

How beautiful can a drawing be? If your name is Paul Mellon, whose constant quest was for the best, then a drawing — a simple sketch — can be as sublime as a finished work on canvas or an ambitious piece of sculpture.

And it's difficult to say which is the most beautiful of the 75 paper works on view in an exhibition of Mellon's collected works at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. These drawings are arranged like a course in 19th-century French art, and several are as arresting as any major oil painting, be it by Vernet, Renoir, Signac, Bonnard or Vuillard. 

Mellon (1907-1999) cast his well trained, passionate eye upon French art, buying works by neoclassic, romantic, Barbizon, impressionist and post-impressionist artists in abundance from the best dealers, only to give them away eventually.   

After finishing Yale and receiving four Bronze Stars during World War II, Mellon opted out of  running the family business (banking), choosing art collecting and philanthropy as his lifetime occupation. It wasn't for naught, because his favorite museums became the happy recipients of some marvelous collections. First Andrew Mellon provided the funds to erect the National Gallery of Art and bequeath it with the 115 paintings that would form the backbone of the nation's collection. Paul (and his knowledgeable wife, Bunny) followed in his father's footsteps, donating a thousand more paintings to the collection; he also funded the gallery's East Wing, which houses mostly contemporary art.

Mellon was never a dilettante. He developed an interest in sporting art and placed many of his collected paintings and drawings in his Yale Center for British Art. He then founded the Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art to encourage research. Choate Rosemary Hall, his prep school, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts also received generous gifts. The museum now owns 324 paintings and 1,600 works on paper, including a large selection of Mellon's horse and other animal paintings.    

The museum's Mellon curator, Mitchell Merling, says that the drawings have a special appeal. “They have the immediacy that paintings lack,” he says. “And there is often a symbiosis between a pen or pencil sketch and the finished drawing. A painting can take months to complete, a drawing takes an hour.”
Merling divides the charming show into three sections. Beginning with the “romantics to the pre-impressionists,” it next leads into “impressionism and post-impressionism,” and culminates with “modernism.” Every chapter has its shining stars.  

J.A.D. Ingres, a neoclassical master of spare line, introduces the 19th century with two insightful pencil drawings done in Rome after the Napoleonic wars. The little-known EugA"ne Lami next produces two small but highly detailed watercolors depicting activities of the English aristocracy, including Queen Victoria. The French poet Baudelaire called him the “poet of the dandy.”

Romantic ThAcodore GAcricault once painted an emotional leaping tiger in watercolor.  Carle Vernet's “Mameluke on Horseback with Bow and Arrow” has a similar wildness, which makes sense: Vernet was GAcricault's teacher. 

EugA"ne Boudin, a pre-impressionist, was a painter of contemporary life. There's a racetrack scene at Deauville, and one beach scene, typical of his numerous sketches of Parisians at leisure on their weekend exodus to the Breton beaches. Edgar Degas' “Jockey Facing Left” is an expression of tension and powerful movement. Camille Pissarro also was an early impressionist.

You're forced to think in terms of a finished painting when viewing two dramatic scenes by Armand Guillaumin. His bright, saturated colors inspired Paul Gauguin and other post-impressionists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Paul CAczanne. Pierre-Auguste Renoir's “Milliner” is a mere pencil sketch on paper of Suzanne Valadon, mother of painter Maurice Utrillo. It uncannily resembles one of the figures in Renoir's later important painting, “Umbrellas.” 

 The flat, decorative intricate patterning of Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard often resulted in a merging of background and foreground. Vuillard's “Container of Flowers” is so detailed it could compete with any oil painting 

Don't miss Belgian RenAc Magritte's whimsical, small “Wrath of the Gods,” just a tiny sketch of a jockey riding a horse atop a car with driver. It is absolutely surreal. And more horses appear with Pablo Picasso's “Horse and Jester on Horseback.” With this stirring exhibit, and all of its scribbled treasures, it's hard not to delight in the power of drawings. 

“Corot to Cezanne: French Drawings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon,” will be on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard, through Jan. 2. Information at vmfa.state.va.us.



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