New York, Looking Lovely, in Works From Six Centuries
IF you asked a group of artists and curators to think of a New York cultural institution with the oldest, most comprehensive collection of watercolors and drawings focused on the New York region, there are many, no doubt, who would say the Metropolitan Museum of Art or even the New York Public Library. But the correct answer is the New-York Historical Society, whose remarkable holdings of more than 8,500 watercolors and drawings has been tapped for a show at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center to celebrate the quadricentennial of the discovery of the Hudson River.
“Drawn by New York: Six Centuries of Watercolors and Drawings at the New-York Historical Society” is a show everyone will love. It is compact, beautiful and thought-provoking, presenting 81 drawings and watercolors from the mid-16th century to the present. The subjects include New York State’s natural scenery, original settlements and citizenry as well as historical events, including Civil War battles and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
The displays are arranged by theme, beginning with a section devoted to that most engrossing of subjects: New York City. Key works in this area include Nicolino Calyo’s gouache depicting the great fire of 1835, which destroyed most of the buildings at the lower tip of Manhattan, including much of what today is the city’s financial district. The artist shows the fire from the vantage point of Brooklyn Heights, working from sketches he made during the fire. It is an intensely dramatic scene, the fire resembling a volcanic eruption.
It is interesting to compare this work with another hanging nearby, a triptych by Donna Levinstone, made in 2002, showing fiery clouds of smoke encircling the doomed World Trade Center towers shortly after the planes struck. It is a beautifully drawn, intensely atmospheric orange and black pastel that, at a glance, is easy to mistake for a series of innocent cloud studies. I know I did. But look closely and you will begin to get an eerie sense that some kind of tragedy is unfolding. Closer inspection reveals the faint outline of buildings on fire, then collapsing.
On a lighter note, the opening section includes a rare 1823 sketch by Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School. It is modest in size, depicting the fallen, gnarled form of an old tree trunk, but the energized pen strokes, evoking the idea of nature in transformation, give it great visual force. As the artist proudly inscribes on the paper, it was sketched outdoors, a technique that was to become one the tenets of the Hudson River School. There is so much emotion in this work that it is hard to believe that the artist was then only 22.
The Cole drawing leads nicely into the second theme, devoted to regional landscape imagery. Among the displays are spectacular scenes of the Hudson River, like William Guy Wall’s watercolor of the Palisades, from 1820, a preparatory study for a portfolio of prints. It is a gentle, exquisite image showing the ancient rock escarpment bathed in a soft yellow-cream glow. Sailboats and a steamer glide across the water, which reflects the pale blue sky. It is a vision of loveliness that is unequaled in beauty by any other image in the exhibition.
There are also sketchbooks by early artist-explorers who discovered and documented the landscape, like Joshua Rowley Watson, a captain in the British Royal Navy, who in the early 19th century traveled from Lake George in New York to Mount Vernon in Virginia. Trained in topographical draftsmanship, he had skills as an artist and made an important contribution to American landscape painting. Scans of the sketchbook, on a computer in the gallery, allow visitors to flick through his watercolors and drawings, page by page.
Rounding out the exhibition is a section devoted to pictures of people, scientific studies and still lifes. Highlights include a pair of original watercolor studies of animals by John James Audubon, and John Vanderlyn’s masterly crayon and gouache portrait of Robert Fulton, who developed the first commercially successful steamboat. Look out also for a pair of mid-16th century ornithological illustrations by Pierre Vase, a French engraver, painter, embroiderer and designer. Besides being luminous, they are the oldest works in the show.
In conjunction with the New-York Historical Society, the Lehman Loeb has done an excellent job with the educational material, producing detailed wall labels for every work and a printed guide to the artworks in each room. For art scholars, there is also a 500-page catalog documenting a portion of the society’s vast collection.
Four centuries ago Henry Hudson discovered the beauty of the Hudson River Valley. Today, courtesy of this show, we can rediscover it all over again.
“Drawn by New York: Six Centuries of Watercolors and Drawings at the New-York Historical Society,” Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, 124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie, through Nov. 1. (845) 437-5632 or fllac.vassar.edu.
By BENJAMIN GENOCCHIO