When Eugene V. Thaw, self-described as “an intellectual art dealer,” died on Jan. 5 at age 90, the art world lost a great connoisseur, collector and patron of the arts.
Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings From the Thaw Collection
The Clark Art Institute
Through April 22.
In 1950, at 23, Mr. Thaw opened a gallery and bookshop in New York where he sold an eclectic mix of works. He soon abandoned the bookshop but kept the gallery, to specialize in European old masters and become one of the most respected figures of his day. Beginning in 1954—urged by his wife, Clare Eddy Thaw (who died in 2017)—the young dealer began to keep works that he particularly admired. Over the next six decades, the couple assembled a collection of more than 400 outstanding drawings and works on paper, from the Renaissance to the 20th century. This remarkable assembly attests to the acuity of Mr. Thaw’s eye, formed by graduate study with such legendary figures as
mentoring by some of the most notable collectors, curators and art historians of his day, and intense scrutiny of countless works of art. (The same rigor applied when the Thaws collected Native American art, ancient Eurasian bronzes, medieval jewelry, architectural models, and more.)
Between 1968 and 2017, the Thaws gave their drawings, incrementally, to the Morgan Library & Museum, which mounted exhibitions of each donation. Last year, a selection of about 150 works, “Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings From the Thaw Collection,” was organized by the Morgan to celebrate this munificent gift, accompanied by a handsome book, with essays by an impressive roster of scholars, lavish illustrations, and a catalogue raisonné of the entire collection.
A slightly different group of 150 works is now on view at the Clark Art Institute. Since Mr. Thaw’s passing, the celebratory exhibition has become a memorial tribute to one of the last passionate, scholarly collectors to be guided solely by his knowledge and taste. Thoughtfully installed by Clark curator
Jay A. Clarke
in both the museum’s main galleries in the Tadao Ando building and the Eugene V. Thaw Gallery for Works on Paper in the recently renovated Manton Study Center, the selection begins with an ink-and-chalk study of three standing figures by
(c. 1450-55), proof of drawing’s role, in the Renaissance, as a means of discovering the visible world. The Ando building installation ends with a series of heads drawn in various mediums by
testimony to 20th-century improvisation, exploration and invention. Nearby, two stunning
mixed-media drawings (c. 1943 and 1944), one dedicated to the pioneering dealer and collector
assert the power of fierce scrawls and scrapings to evoke unstable images dredged from the unconscious.
In between, we encounter a wealth of dazzling works, organized chronologically, geographically and thematically, cataloging 17th- and 18th-century drawings of religious subjects, social satire, landscape and portraits, from the Baroque to the Rococo to Neo-Classicism, in Italy, France and Northern Europe. Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works follow. Nineteenth-century Romantic drawings are in the Thaw Gallery.
The collection is at once comprehensive, wide-ranging and personal. Mr. Thaw preferred finished works to preparatory drawings, but excellence always dictated his selections; witness a
sheet of casual studies for a Descent From the Cross (c. 1654) and a flickering, multifigure study of the same subject by
Peter Paul Rubens
(c. 1617-18). Mr. Thaw loved the sparkling light and playful themes of both Tiepolos, father and son, but also relished adventurous modernism. The
watercolors—scintillating landscapes, a moody still life, a group of bathers—are all extraordinary. So is a delicious
watercolor of women in extravagant hats against dotted foliage, about to dissolve into abstraction. Although the collection includes a good number of recent works, there’s little on view at the Clark: a nervous
still life, an
grid, a fine Richard Diebenkorn Ocean Park drawing, and a minimal
collage. Mr. Thaw framed his works, rather than keeping them in archival storage, so there’s a subtext of often spectacular period-appropriate frames.
“Drawn to Greatness” is so rich that only the complete checklist could do justice to what should be noted. Don’t miss the incisive
the Elder portrait; Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s pencil portrait of a standing man with complex clothing folds played against a complicated folding desk; Etiènne-Louis Boullée’s obsessive interior of a monumental library, washed in light; a wild wash drawing by the decorous portrait painter
Moroccan watercolors and a crouching tiger;
Vincent van Gogh’s
letters with drawings of the paintings he describes, in exquisite handwriting, to his friend
radiant watercolor of a woman and child outdoors; Edgar Degas’s mysterious café concert scene;
economical landscape, all scribbles and velvety blacks. And. And. And. Even if you saw the show at the Morgan, a trip to the Clark is immensely rewarding.
—Ms. Wilkin is an independent curator and critic.