At National Gallery, an indictment and endorsement of the collector’s exhibit

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.

Both ideas — or, perhaps one should say, both straw men — are thoroughly pulverized by this exhibition. A room devoted to romanticism is filled with sunsets and sunrises, some of them (by Paul Huet and the minor regional painter Francois-Auguste Ravier) exploding with abstract, impressionist energy. And among the impressionists, a watercolor by Monet of the Waterloo Bridge in London, made in 1901, pushes even Monet’s extremes of visual reductionism and pure intimation to the limits of legibility.

This last drawing, made while Monet was traveling, exists because the artist arrived at the Savoy Hotel ahead of his paints and tools. This underscores two essential things about drawing in the 19th century: The materials of drawing were easily portable, and they became part of the standard kit not just for artists, but for tourists, amateurs and people of “quality.” Watercolor made painting accessible to new practitioners, and it took the painterly eye into the most remote niches of the world. Not surprisingly, this overview of drawing is heavy on the picturesque: forests and seascapes, cliffs along the Atlantic coast, boats floating on placid harbors or ponds, charming street scenes, and Eastern exotica.

But the sensibility isn’t entirely bourgeois postcards and souvenirs.

“It is not all pretty, pretty,” argues Andrew Robison, who co-curated the show with Margaret Morgan Grasselli. He points to two drawings by Pissarro, both of which depict peasant women as lumpy and earthbound people. One of them, seen from behind with her face obscured, has a lifetime’s worth of work and hardship summed up in the raw, red hand that supports her inelegant bulk.

But if the show is rich enough to overturn misguided assumptions about French art, it isn’t quite complete enough to be a thorough primer. Robison says that Dyke isn’t particularly interested in neoclassical drawing (thus nothing by David or Ingres) or academic art of the mid-19th century. Big names of the period are absent: Daumier, Corot and Gericault. And some artists, such as Millet, are represented in very quirky ways. Although he made gorgeous, gauzy, atmospheric finished drawings, Millet is present in this exhibition only through a very sketchy pen-and-ink rendering of a woman reclining on what seems to be a gentle hillside.

Millet’s drawing is lovely and tender, and lingers in the memory, but it leaves one with the sense that the artist was a gifted dabbler when compared with Angrand’s 1894 “Annunciation to the Shepherds,” which is made with charcoal and a greasy black crayon that has been rubbed over nubbly paper until almost all is pitch, save a shaft of diffuse light seen through inky darkness that lingers just long enough to define two shadowy forms, humbled by the presence of God.

Robison sees this as a strength of the show. Dyke is interested, says Robison, in art as art, not in the name attached to it, and he doesn’t collect to fill in the gaps and check off the standard art historical lists.

“If anything, he takes the most pleasure in a major drawing by a minor master,” says Robison.

Dyke works with curators at the National Gallery to build his own collection of French works on paper, about a quarter of which has already been given or promised to the gallery. Robison hopes (but won’t promise) that much of the rest will come to the National Gallery as well. Dyke also gives money to the gallery to buy work directly, and in the case of French 19th-century drawing, his opinion and taste informs what the gallery buys. It is, as Robison puts it, “an intimately cooperative relationship.”

Critics generally hate this sort of thing, and the National Gallery has been rapped in the past for presenting too many exhibitions that focus exclusively on one collector’s material (next up: works from the Ruth Cole Kainen estate, this fall). This exhibition clearly demonstrates the most substantial of the arguments against this kind of show: that it could be much better, much more representative and more useful as a teaching tool, if the parameters were extended to include other works not in Dyke’s collection.

The catalogue, well written, informative and clearly intended to lay out French works on paper in a clear comprehensive way, wants to be associated with a different show, with material borrowed from other galleries and museums, with more heart-stopping works and fewer orphans and oddities.

But critics, to be honest, are also prone to envy, and at least some of the resentment against the collector show has to do with the privileged relation between the institution and the wealthy. In the end, Dyke’s special access may redound to the advantage of the National Gallery and thus to the advantage of the American people, but it feels wrong, underscoring the art world’s genetic propensity to aristocracy and exclusivity rather than egalitarianism and openness.

Perhaps it feels even more wrong when it comes to works on paper from this particular era, when artists started making drawings and watercolors for the consumer without deep pockets. Seeing them awakens a vestigial desire to own them, to relate to them as the 19th-century French public did. Unlike an exhibition of Renaissance painting or sculpture, the work here still feels domestic and accessible to our acquisitive nature.

And so you emerge sensing not just the wealth and range of visual thinking during one of art history’s most splendid eras, but the contradictions of how art gets sorted and valorized over time. Museums are in the business of constantly refining old snapshots of consumer taste, confirming or correcting the decisions made by the art market. Most of us, unable to participate in the art market, turn that process over to professionals, academics and curators. But a very few people are able to relate to art and museum culture as consumers, pursuing their own whims and passions, driving rather than following settled taste, and in the process reordering old ideas.

Dyke is one of those people, a free agent of taste whose decisions still have an impact on the definition of what good art is, more than a century after ordinary people were able to play that game in relationship to this work. His priorities are not necessarily mainstream priorities, and for that one naturally feels both thankful and a little twinge of resentment.

Color, Line, Light: French Drawings, Watercolors, and Pastels from Delacroix to Signac

on view at the National Gallery of Art
from Jan. 27 to May 26. For more information visit www.nga.gov.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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