'Drawn to Greatness': Exhibit features collection of Old Masters compiled by 'legendary' Eugene Thaw

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WILLIAMSTOWN — How many wonders can one art collection hold?

Hundreds, especially if the collection belonged to the late Eugene V. Thaw, a renowned collector of Old Master drawings, influential art dealer and all-around art lover.

With his wife, the late Clare E. Thaw, he amassed a collection of over 400 drawings from across five centuries, including works by Rembrandt, Degas, Van Gogh, Goya, Picasso, Fragonard, Cezanne and Jackson Pollock. Thaw, 90, died on Jan. 3.

Thaw was a collector who also believed that art belonged in public spaces. And he and his wife, who died in June at the age of 93, gave generously.

A $2 million gift from the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust in 2016 allowed the museum to renovate and dedicate a 1,350-square-foot gallery space specifically for the exhibition of works on paper. The space, known as The Eugene V. Thaw Gallery for Works on Paper, is located in the Manton Research Center.

"He made gift after gift to institutions he cherished. His closest relationship was with the Morgan Library and Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, [the Fenimore Museum in] Cooperstown and [The Clark] were also lucky to be close to his heart," said Olivier Meslay, the Clark's Felda and Dena Hardymon director, during a press preview Wednesday of "Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection."

"Eugene Thaw, for the last half-century, was one of the legendary figures in many, many aspects of the art world. He is probably one of the most amazing dealers that has been in New York and in the world since World War II," Meslay said. "He was a great scholar. He was one of the best collectors of old master drawings, but he was also the man who made the catalogue raisonne of Jackson Pollock.

"He was one of the most important dealers. I would say no important collection in the world was able to do anything without going to see Eugene. With his wife, Clare, he was an expert, a taste maker, the discoverer of many, many treasurers," he said. "When he was selling masterpiece after masterpiece, he was also able to collect, for himself, masterpiece after masterpiece. When you see this exhibition, any of these pieces could be the pride of any museum collection."

For the past several years, Thaw was involved in the creation of a catalogue raisonne of his collection. The exhibition, "Drawn to Greatness," which debuted at The Morgan in September, opened on Saturday at The Clark.

"Since I was a young curator, Eugene Thaw's name was everywhere," Meslay said. "For me, he was a sort of legend. When I arrived here and heard we were receiving this exhibition, I was very proud of this. We were planning to celebrate this week with him. Unfortunately, Eugene Thaw passed away some weeks ago. What was scheduled to be a tribute to him is now in memory."

The exhibit, which runs through April 22, is comprised of 150 master drawings, spanning 500 years, was collected by the Thaws over five decades.

Displayed chronologically, the show is part art history, as it follows the evolution of the value of works on paper in the art world, and part love affair. Eugene Thaw's fingerprints can figuratively be seen throughout. Thaw collected specific artists — Dutch artists account for most of the 17th-century drawings, as he disliked the Italian artists from that time — and specific types of drawings. The Thaw collection is strong in autonomous drawings — complete, standalone works — unfinished drawings are few.

"What's kind of amazing is that Mr. Thaw chose specific mats and frames for 90 percent of these pieces," said Jay A. Clarke, Manton curator of prints, drawings and photographs, during a press tour.

Prior to the middle of the 16th century, drawings were not considered works of art. Mainly, they functioned as a learning or planning tool. As paper became more readily available, artists became aware that any drawing had the potential of becoming collectible. They began crafting highly finished drawings, she said.

Artists like Jorg Breu the Younger were creating works like "Artybios on Horseback Attacking Onesilus," a highly detailed fight scene drawn in black ink and gray wash on gray paper. In the scene, Artybios plunges a spear through Onesilus, while his horse seemingly holds the enemy in place with its mouth. Nearby, Lucas Cranach the Elder's "Portrait of a Man, Possibly Justus Jonas," is a fine example of how the artists were experimenting with paper at the same time. Here Cranach was using oil on paper, which was not traditional at the time.

As works on paper became more popular, more artists used it. In the 17th century, landscapes evolved from observed realities to narratives.

Clarke noted several drawings by Jean-Honore Fragonard, who was known for his imaginative garden scenes, including the highly prized "Portrait of a Neapolitan Woman." The woman, drawn in black chalk with a brown wash, is not fantastical or imagined, but presented more as a moment in time.

"It was a very different drawing for him," she said. "Many of the works in his exhibit, like this one, on their own, are worth the price of admission."

Thaw collected some artists in greater depth than others — Rembrandt is represented fairly well, as are Degas, Goya, Tiepolo, Ingres and Redon.

A series of work by Odilon Redon shows his mastery of charcoal and pastel. "The Sphinx" and "The Spider," two fantastical pieces featuring human and animal hybrids, were created on creme-colored paper covered in black chalk.

"He would cover the sheet in black and erase the chalk to create the drawings. He then added in small details back in with the charcoal," Clarke explained.

In another part of the gallery, a wall is lined with letters written by Vincent Van Gogh. Intertwined with the curls of inky penmanship are small drawings of recognizable works by the master. On the opposite wall, three works by Edgar Degas hang, including "Three Studies for a Dancer," a study for his statue, "Little Dancer Aged Fourteen," one of which resides in the Clark's permanent collection.

The collection includes several watercolors by Paul Cezanne, of which "Trees," a watercolor over graphite, is on display.

"You can see why Cezzane was so important," Clarke said in passing. "It's a painting of trees, but do you see a leaf? It's a prism of color."

The exhibit also contains works from more modern masters, including a sad-eyed "Portrait of Marie-Therese Walter," fashioned by Pablo Picasso at a time when he was leaving her for another lover, and a Jackson Pollock, "Abstract (Untitled Ram)."

"Some of what was shown at The Morgan is not here, because of its fragility," Clarke said. "We have works that were not on display at The Morgan. We also have 25 more on display as well."

Not wanting to cut the items from the show, Clarke selected a handful of drawings, which share the romantic tradition, to display in the gallery named for Thaw in the Manton Research Center.

There, you'll find Casper David Friedrich's transcendental "Moonlit Landscape" with its cutout moon that would glow when a candle was lit behind it. You'll also find a series of poetically named pieces by Francisco De Goya.

Goya, who's bread and butter came from Spanish royalty, captured the people of the street in his private sketch book, where he used titles like "They go well together," and "You are having a bad time," to describe his work.

"One of the difficult things about this show really is the question of what do you say about 500 years of Western drawings," Clarke said. "It's just a sampling of his collection."

The collection, like its owner, is legendary and seemingly larger than life.


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