True Reflection — Oil Sketches from the Thaw Collection at Morgan Library


Yesterday (Jan 23) was the opening day for three new exhibitions at Morgan Library: Oil Sketches from the Thaw Collection (New York Times review), the Thaw Collection of Master Drawings and On the Money: Cartoons for The New Yorker.

Among the three, works in the master drawings are a state of wonders. (Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time for it after first going through the oil sketch exhibition.)


"Cloud Study" by Johan Christian Clausen Dahl,
“Cloud Study” by Johan Christian Clausen Dahl

The plein-air oil sketches were popular in the late 18th century and remained vital until the dawn of Impressionism. Artists like Corot or Constable would probably never exhibit their sketch works since they were meant to be preliminary studies and prepare them for larger, more refined works. Most of the exhibited works are oil on paper laid on canvas or wood panels, thus they are both literally and conceptually between drawing and painting.

The oil sketch provides a unique angle to appreciate the 19th-century art. The majority of finished works tend to be void of brush strokes, leaving no human efforts visible. The oil sketch reveals how the masterpiece came into being and how the artist perceived the view personally. One of the appeals of the modern arts to the young generations is the intentional traces of human labor, the proof of art created by means of visible brushwork, layers of paint and scribbled seemingly randomness that echoes human nature. Here, far away from the fear and burden of being criticized by the convention of neoclassicism or other approved styles, the artists of the 19th century were bold and adventurous. They experimented, explored and tried out the subjects with all different techniques. In these works, they shine not for their craftsmanship but for their artistic curiosity.

Modern painters sometimes differentiate between compositional studies from color sketches. The former helps the artist to understand the form, proportion and balance while the latter forces them to solve the color problem separately. In this exhibition, most of the sketches can be regarded as more or less complete works which have combined both composition and color studies together.

Johan Christian Clausen Dahl is one of my favorite painters. His painting, “Coast of Capri“, at the Carnegie Museum of Art, purveys an unknown force behind the mystic and meditative scene. Here, in depicting clouds at sunset dated on May 9, 1828 — a view probably from his studio, he used colors of both cold and warm, a variety of gamuts to show boundless spatial grandeur on a piece of 5 by 7 inches paper. In comparison, John Constable’s “Cloud Study” was more or less created with the intention to make this a finished painting. The oil on canvas work is much larger. Constable’s fascination with the cloud is well known. His choice of color and light was keen to nature and weather itself, thus more scientific than purely romantic compared to that of Dahl. What intrigues me is the succinctness and effectiveness of his use of main colors. The brownish maroon color from the ground set the backdrop for the light bluish cloud by the use of broken strokes while blue color seeps into the ground to assuage the darkness of the foreground. Thus there is an overall sparkling light effect even though none of the colors he chose was of intense saturation.

Cluster of Trees by Gilles-François-Joseph Closson
“Cluster of Trees” by Gilles-François-Joseph Closson

My favorite in the exhibition is a painting by Gilles Francois Joseph Closson. “Cluster of Trees” is an oil sketch over graphite on paper. Only the area of the trees was painted, leaving the rest of the paper blank with some remains of preliminary drawings. Closson favored unfinished sketches thus one would suspect that he ingenuously displayed three layers of creativity: blank space, graphite drawing and oil painting within one artwork, simply to show artistic creativity. The clustered tree was so realistic that it contracted one’s mind once the eyes move the borders where some pencil scribbles were left out. Indeed, looking at it, I began to have the illusion that the scene would pop out of the surrounding empty space. In this case, there is a sense of artistic pleasure combined with confusion battled between eyes and minds that put such an oil sketch more advantageous than if it had been fully completed.

Studying Nature: Oil Sketches from the Thaw Collection” is now on exhibit at Morgan Library from Jan 23 to Aug 30. Morgan Library is free of admission every Friday from 7 – 9PM with music entertainment.

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