Historical societies’ “attics” — actually, they call it “storage” — are a lot like those at your great aunt Eloise’s house, only even better. You don’t know what you might find because there’s so much up there.
One of the best of those institutional “attics” belongs to the New-York Historical Society, judging from the new Drawn by New York show at the Taft Museum of Art, running now through Jan. 17. (The Society itself, established 205 years ago, dates from a time when “New” and “York” were hyphenated.)
For this show, around 80 pieces were chosen from a larger version of the exhibition, which appeared earlier at the Society’s headquarters. The purpose is to highlight drawings in watercolor, ink, graphite, pastel and other media. Although the Society began collecting drawings and watercolors in 1816, before any other public institution in the United States, “these works have gone largely unseen,” says Lynne Ambrosini, Taft Museum’s chief curator.
The contents of anybody’s attic are unlikely to have a unifying theme, and the Society’s is no exception. There must have been a scramble to find one for this show with its scattered subject matter, wide range of dates and variety of media. But by calling it Drawn by New York, the play on words suggests links one way or another to the city or the state, and reflects the society’s collecting philosophy: “seen through the prism of New York.” So why is a there a misty view of “Windsor Castle in Moonlight”? Because it was made by John Frederick Kensett, second generation Hudson River School artist.
Chronological arrangement would have been hopeless for this show, stripping it of meaning.
But by grouping material in categories like “Natural World,” “Portraits,” “Documents” and others, the exhibition takes on shape and connotation. “Natural World” includes a couple of surprising recently discovered John James Audubon works. Not birds, but New York state wildlife: a study of bats and another of squirrels.
Robert Fulton, who developed the steamboat, is seen looking remote and reserved in a 1778 portrait by John Vanderlyn, but is also represented in the “Documents” group by his own careful drawing of a boat being moved out of the water by a method of his own design. Subject matter is the driving interest in “Documents,” rather than pure artistic merit. George Catlin, for instance, made a quick record in ink and pencil of himself painting the portrait of a Native American chief. The easel, the artist and the chief are surrounded by interested, perhaps puzzled Native American on-lookers.
Among the delights of the show are photographic reproductions of the exquisite sketchbooks of a couple of Hudson River School artists, George Heriot and Joshua Rowley Watson. The books themselves are under glass, but the visitor is free to turn the pages of their facsimiles.
The show’s landscapes, sorry to say, can become boring, but their distribution in different categories (“Natural World,” “Hudson River School,” “Finished Landscape”) spreads them out.
If the show is short on masterpieces, it’s long on quirky pleasures. There’s John Singer Sargent, young and energetic and wearing what seems to be his favorite hat, in sketches by his art school friend James Carroll Beckwith. The craze for cut silhouettes turns up in the “Portraits” section and a wonderfully stylized rendition of Niagara Falls by Thomas Davies, made in 1766, sets the stage for many portrayals of a New World landscape at which European eyes could only wonder.
The exhibition ends with a section called “New York New York,” anchored by a 1650 view of New Amsterdam seen from the water, with a stone church the highest building in town. The immensely charming Edward Penfield study for a poster showing a horse-drawn coach in service from the city into New Jersey is seen here.
The final two works are marvelous graphite drawings from the late 1990s by Eve Aschheim. They appear at first to be abstract but are in fact renditions of the forever-changing surface of the Hudson River, which she sees from her studio window. The implicit message seems to be that the river was there before any of these busy artworks were even conceived, a stable element in a changing world. Heartening, on the whole.
DRAWN BY NEW YORK is on view at the Taft Museum of Art through Jan. 17. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.