National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 4 (II:2) 1964

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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The Collection of Drawings

by Kathleen M. Fenwick,
Curator of Prints and Drawings

Résumé en français

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The National Gallery's collection of drawings may be said to have started in 1911 with the purchase of a group of 17 old master drawings by the Advisory Arts Council, which had been set up by the Government in 1907 to administer the affairs of the Gallery and other matters related to the arts.

Few of these 17 drawings, which were bought from Gimpel and Wildenstein in New York, who had acquired them from the Duke of Rutland, were of much interest though one or two were of some importance, notably an admirable sheet of studies by Annibale Carracci (Fig. 2). The following year the Council bought some good nineteenth-century French examples by Daubigny, Millet (Fig. 14), Rousseau and others. After 1913, when the Gallery was incorporated under a Board of Trustees, attention for some years was centred on the acquisition of works by British artists. These were mostly negligible, except for a small group of Rowlandsons and a drawing by Augustus John.

In 1921 when the Gallery was re-opened after the war years a Print Department was established. Here, as its name implied, the emphasis was mainly on the building up of a representative print collection. The founding of this department was, however, to have some bearing on the future of the drawing collection. The drawings, such as they were, were now in its care; and though purchases were for a number of years to remain rather casual ones, a few good examples were acquired, such as the small Gainsborough landscape (Fig. 17) from the Fairfax Murray collection in 1922, four late Goyas (Fig. 18) in 1923, and a fine early Turner water colour in 1924. But the Gallery could as yet hardly claim to have a drawing collection. Rather, it had a few isolated and for the most part undistinguished examples which seemed to have been acquired mainly by accident rather than by design.

With the general growth of interest in drawings on the part of scholars, students and public alike, it was felt that something should be done towards building up a representative collection worthy of a National Gallery with an already reputable collection of paintings. So in 1937 on the advice of the then director, Eric Brown, the Trustees appointed the late Paul Oppé to help them in this task. As their adviser he was authorized to make purchases for the Gallery up to an agreed annual amount without reference to the Trustees, director or curator of prints and drawings; he was thus given complete freedom to act as he thought best, though he sometimes consulted with them, especially on major purchases.

The collection owes much to Paul Oppé. He made his first purchase, a handsome drawing by Fuseli (Fig. 16) the year he was appointed and continued to buy drawings for the Gallery until his death in 1956, except for the war years when purchases of works of art were drastically curtailed. During his period of office he bought, in all, 341 drawings and water colours which, with a few important exceptions, form the basis of the collection. His policy, as he affirmed more than once, was to acquire as many major examples as the comparatively small sums put at his disposal allowed and at the same time to add a number of minor examples to form a study collection for the benefit of those interested in the many varied aspects of drawing.

Among the major Italian purchases he made were the charming little metal-point drawing of a saint praying by Raphael and some excellent drawings by the Carracci, Jacopo Bassano, Go B. Tiepolo, Piranesi (Fig. 4) and others. He also added several good examples by the Netherlands landscape artists of the seventeenth century, a fine sheet of studies by Rubens (Fig. 10), and a number of excellent French drawings by Lagneau, Dumonstier (Fig. 9), Bourdon, Watteau (Figo II) and Claude, with drawings by Millet, Corot, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaudier-Brzeska and others to represent the later schools.

But as was to be expected it was in his special field of interest, the English school, on which he was universally acknowledged to be a great authority, that Oppé made some of his best purchases. Here he added a number of drawings and water colours by the landscape artists Alexander Cozens, Paul Sandby, Turner, Cotman, and Girtin and a number by those lesser-known artists of which he had such a wide knowledge; the Fuseli drawing, already mentioned; also a superb early Samuel Palmer and works by other artists of Blake's circle; and drawings by Sickert, Augustus John and Epstein.

In 1960 Mr A. E. Popham, formerly Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, was appointed as Oppé's successor. He has continued to purchase drawings on the same terms and has made several important additions to the collection during the past few years. These include among others a sheet, formerly in the collection of Sir Sidney Cockerell, from a Florentine picture chronicle of about 1450 (Fig. 2); two drawings by Parmigianino which are the subject of an article in this Bulletin; and one by Albrecht Dürer, purchased as an anonymous drawing of the Nuremberg School which his researches have now established as being by the German master.

Apart from the purchases made by Oppé and Mr Popham a number of drawings have also been acquired independently from time to time, some of them of considerable interest. Among these are two early metal-point drawings, one from the studio of Hans Memling, (1) the other a small page from a sketch-book, attributed to Gheeraert David (Fig. 6); a drawing attributed to Mabuse; and several of the eighteenth century by Huet, Lallemand, Moreau l'Ainé, Boucher and others, and an important work by Fragonard, a recent acquisition (Fig. 13). But for the most part these purchases have consisted of nineteenth- and twentieth-century examples, of the French school by Corot, (2) Degas, Ingres, Renoir, Matisse, Modigliani, Segonzac and Picasso; of the German by Klee, Kirchner, Nolde and Schmidt-Rottluff; and by other contemporary artists, with a view to bringing the representation of European draughtmanship up to date.

Gifts and bequests have been few in number but fortunately have included some of the best examples in the collection, such as the Dürer drawing, Nude Woman with a Staff (Fig. 5), from the Lubomirski collection, presented in 1956 by Mr Joseph H. Hirshhorn and a group of his friends and associates; An Angel Bringing Food to a Hermit by Boucher (Fig. 12), the gift of Mrs Samuel Bronfman in 1957; Medea Slaying Her Children by Fragonard, presented by the Royal Trust Company of Montreal in 1962; (3) the Renoir drawing of Gabrielle et Jean (Fig. 15), given by M. Martin Fabiani in 1956; studies for a Crucifixion by Rouault, the gift of Édouard Jonas in 1951; and the Delacroix drawing, La Barque de Dante, a recent bequest of Mrs Ruth Massey Tovell. The collection, to which this article serves as a brief introduction, at present consists of some six hundred and fifty drawings, and its further growth can be expected with some confidence. A catalogue of the European schools has been prepared by Mr Popham, which is the source for some of the information given here. Its publication, a long awaited event, should do much to bring the collection some of the recognition it deserves.

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