Los Angeles

“Collectors Drawings (1860–1920)”

Rex Evans Gallery

If we can imagine an exhibition in the year 2062 of drawings by favorite artists from 1960–2020, we might be disappointed to learn that it had taken almost a century for them to come back into esthetic focus. Such is the case with the once-fashionable artists represented in this tasteful exposition.

The days when a lyric line would bring Dada demonstrations are over. Preceded by the wave of interest in the undulations of Art Nouveau, patterning like the rippling wet-drapery studies by Queen Victoria’s favorite, Lord Frederic Leighton, or Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s sensuous repetition of a golden cord snaking around and around the smooth throat of Alice Wildman, or the Neo-Botticellian excesses of Sir Edward Burne-Jones’ illustrations for Chaucer, all have been freed from the prohibition against valuing curvaceousness which dominated the esthetic taste of the first half of this century. Instead we can take pleasure in the artist’s elegance and rhythmic successes while noting the limitations in facial expression or color usage.

Mr. E. J. Poynter of the Royal Academy said in 1871, “Remember that the true object of art is to create a world, not to imitate what is constantly before our eyes.” This precept lay at the heart of late 19th-century art. Woman has never been that attenuated, nor man so chivalrous, but because it would have been so nice if they were, a wishful and nostalgic art came into being. Sir George Hayter’s brown ink drawing of a romantically turbaned and bearded man, splendidly arrayed in Renaissance costume, is a good example of the gap between observation and idealization. His strong and accurately drawn shoulder contrasts sharply with the gentleman’s face where the unwrinkled, unconvincing countenance of an esthete provokes an “eyeglass-adding” desire in the perceiver.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood represents the most deliberate example of the Counter-Industrial Revolution in English art. Setting out from a deliberate desire to preach and inspire, their symbolic art derived its ideas from literature but, unlike Delacroix, they sought an anachronistic form. From such didactic goals, ultimately conception rather than construction counted, dividing the group into the sheltered and literary art of Rosetti and Burne-Jones, and the literal extravagance of Hunt and Milais’ quest for “exact truth to nature.” But the exhibition at the Evans Gallery shows the drawings to be free from most of the meretricious aspects encountered in their larger works. Burne-Jones’ “Study for Male Figure” (from The Briar Rose) and the pensive young woman in “Portrait” are much more than literature in two dimensions. His ability to evoke the nervous inner preoccupation of the girl by her tensed shoulder and set mouth and the way the lines of the drawing stop irregularly at the knees gives us a glimpse of the intuitive talent of this artist which was masked in his laborious allegorical paintings. Fortunately the Huntington Museum has purchased three of the drawings and Los Angeles State College is now the repository of the lavish editions of Chaucer, illustrated by Burne-Jones and printed by William Morris’ Kelnscott Press, so there is continued opportunity to reexamine this artist’s excellence.

In the last analysis, it seems that the English are basically empiricists and their painting is at its highest as an observation of nature. The shapely, fresh and restrained “Cloisters at Amalfi” by Hector Brabazon Brabazon is a delightful example of the peripatetic watercolorist. In addition to the extraordinary endowment of his doubled name, Brabazon Brabazon had the ability for evocative understatement that is so necessary to wash-painting, and the sureness of his brush is shown by the perfection of shape achieved in a single stroke for a small pot of flowers casting its shadow inside the courtyard of the cloisters.

The portrait, following the Reformation, is the most important genre in continental art. F. X. Winterhalter’s “Lady of the Austrian Court” and Alfred Stevens’ “Madame Speyer” present a contrast between an official sitting and a more intimate portrait. Winterhalter’s line is haughty and in the swanlike neck we understand how necessary it was for Toulouse-Lautrec to add an acerbic edge to that same line. The Stevens drawing has amplitude and a wonderful slowness to both the chubby contour of the lady’s arm and the rich modeling of her sumptuous upper back. The quality of Stevens’ drawing of Madame Speyer makes her much less than a goddess, but much more than a mannikin.

Other works in the exhibition included a tiny oil study by Eugene Louis Boudin showing his potentially impressionist style, some anecdotal watercolors by John Singer Sargent and a study for the Luxembourg portrait of Legros by Albert Besnard.

Rosalind G. Wholden