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.