There’s something slightly unruly and diffuse about the National Gallery of Art’s new exhibition of 19th-century French works on paper, “Color, Line, Light: French Drawings, Watercolors, and Pastels From Delacroix to Signac.” Part of it is the art, diverse in form, style and ambition; but part of it is the exhibition, which is devoted not to an argument, or a comprehensive overview, but to the generosity of the man who collected it, James T. Dyke, a longtime supporter of the gallery and also the Arkansas-based chairman of its national advisory board, known as the Trustees’ Council.
Dyke is a respected connoisseur of the subject, and his passion for the material is evident throughout this 100-work show, spanning the great names of French art (Delacroix and Signac are joined by Millet, Manet, Cezanne, Degas, Pissarro and Monet) as well as many neglected lesser lights (including Georges Lemmen and Charles Angrand). He has also been an important advocate for the drawings of Paul Signac, which are a highlight and will likely convince Signac skeptics to take a second look at the neoimpressionist artist.
But despite its chronological layout, and a catalogue that deftly traces not only the stylistic history of French work on paper but also much of its cultural and material history as well, the show feels neither complete nor focused. The curators might argue that that is the point. Works on paper reveal the vast id of art history, undermine its neat categories and dismantle its long-standing hierarchies. Given that Paris was the capital of the 19th century, and French artists drove the rapacious creative engines of Western art, French works on paper from this period, roughly 1830 to 1925, are particularly hard to pin down and classify.
It is rather as if music history had only three categories: symphonies, opera and everything else, which would include singing in the shower, Beethoven string quartets and discarded drafts of unfinished art songs. Works on paper are like this “everything else” of music, and we see their ridiculous diversity in full splendor, from a quickly made watercolor sketch by Berthe Morisot that functions as a pre-digital snapshot of her daughter, Julie, to large, finished and sometimes thrilling drawings made for sale to collectors, including a striking nocturnal vision of religious illumination by Angrand.
The scope of the “everything else” in art is so vast and uncharted that any reasonably complete exhibition will necessarily overturn expectations. Until the late 1960s, as one catalogue author writes, it was a common belief that among the impressionists, only Degas devoted energy to drawing. But then came a flood of discoveries, magnificent drawings (and pastels, watercolors and other forms) by Cezanne, Renoir and Monet. The very idea of drawing, in French art, was supposedly governed intellectually (though never in practice) by the idea that it was about form and line, as opposed to color, at least as defined in the famous dictionaries and encyclopedias that were the pride and bane of French thinking since the Enlightenment.