Between Heaven and Earth: Prints from the Meakins-McClaran Collection
For Canadian collectors Jonathan Meakins and Jacqueline McClaran, acquiring prints has been a passion and pursuit over the course of four decades. The exhibition The Collectors' Cosmos: The Meakins-McClaran Print Collection, on view at the National Gallery of Canada, presents a journey through the ages, bringing together a selection of exquisite prints from their extraordinary collection.
Today, the strength of the collection lies in 16th- and 17th-century Dutch and Flemish landscape and genre scenes, including works by artists such as Pieter Bruegel, Hendrick Goltzius, Jacob van Ruisdael and Cornelis Dusart. The scope of the collectors’ taste and interests – and consequently their collection – is much broader, however. It ranges from the earliest masters of the art of Northern European engraving, including Albrecht Dürer, to 17th-century Dutch artists, such as Rembrandt van Rijn, through to 19th-century artists, including Jean-François Millet and James McNeill Whistler, and into the 20th century with Pablo Picasso and Jean Paul Riopelle. For the exhibition, more than 200 works have been selected and organized thematically: Prelude, Cosmologies, The World in Landscape, Nature, Arcadia and The Carnival of Life.
In "Prelude," visitors are introduced to the city of Paris, where Meakins and McClaran began their collecting odyssey, while they were on sabbatical. Etchings by Jacques Callot and Charles Meryon capture historical views of the French capital in the 17th and 19th centuries. The values of the two collectors – the importance of the arts in life, and finding time for reflection – particularly come to light in works such as Jusepe de Ribera’s Poet, depicting a figure sometimes identified as Virgil.
The section titled “Cosmologies” features many allegories – the representation of abstract ideas through personifications and symbols – that capture both scientific and mythological attempts to make sense of the world. These images deal with big ideas, such as the passage of time, life and death, faith and science, or knowledge and the shape of the universe. The allegory The Four Times of Day by the highly versatile artist Hendrick Goltzius, and engraved by Dutch painter and printmaker Jan Saenredam, is shown in contemporary costume and setting. In the depiction of Morning, the children are preparing for school, while their elders also engage in study. In Midday, the elders labour, one tatting lace and others doing carpentry. Evening is for revelry and socializing, sharing food and wine with friends and lovers, and Night is for sleeping. It is noteworthy that personifications of the times of day – represented by classical gods flying through the sky – can be seen through the windows in the background. The contemporary setting gives the images a sense of realism, due to the inclusion of familiar everyday objects – whether it is the hat of the nursemaid in her lap as she falls asleep, the candlestick or chamber pot, or the cat and mouse.
This section also captures an important aspect of printmaking in 16th-century Northern Europe: an eagerness to comprehend the world, and the important role that landscape played in the attempt to capture that knowledge of all that lies between heaven and earth – and represent it on paper. It also introduces two modes of representation, the allegorical versus the naturalistic, which ebb and flow through the exhibition. The magnificent series of engravings of the seven planets by Jan Sadeler I, after Maarten de Vos, combines allegory with the beginnings of a naturalistic mode of landscape. This set of stunning prints is a lovely composite arrangement of the cosmos: the gods riding their chariots through the skies, above the vast panorama of the peoples in the cities below, with rivers winding their way through mountainous landscapes. Such elevated bird's-eye views of the world, with recognizable topographical elements combined to create what are in fact imaginary landscapes, illustrate an early style of landscape called the “world landscape.” This was a mode perfected by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel.
By the 17th century, as landscape became an independent genre, frequently with no narrative added, the viewer’s perspective dropped and the Dutch countryside took pride of place. More than half of the prints in the Meakins-McClaran collection are landscapes, and together they tell the story of the emergence and the development of landscape in Dutch and Flemish prints. As the century progressed, figures often diminished in size and significance, or disappeared completely. Nature – also a theme in the exhibition – was portrayed in atmospheric scenes of sunlit fields of wheat, country roads and majestic trees.
Another theme explored in the exhibition is "Arcadia:" pastoral scenes that present an ideal notion of a rustic paradise and include surprisingly dignified portraits of animals – cows, bulls, goats and sheep. The Arcadian scenes are based on classical bucolic poetry and are usually characterized by a rich and prosperous countryside populated with milkmaids or shepherds and their flocks. The newly independent northern Netherlands took pride in their largely agricultural lowlands, retrieved from Spanish Habsburg rule and reclaimed from the sea. Shepherd with Bagpipes by the Flemish artist Jan Miel, who signed this print with the Italian version of his name while working in Rome during the 1640s, is a good example.
The comedic strain of everyday life in Dutch 16th- and 17th-century art is the focus of the section tilted “The Carnival of Life,” showcasing genre subjects of village fairs and drunken gatherings in taverns. The subject matter is epitomized by the peasant imagery of Pieter Bruegel and his depictions of a typical Netherlandish kermis. Such feast days and festivals celebrating local patron saints were notorious for their drunken excess. Although traditionally seen as moralizing and admonitory images, these scenes have more recently been interpreted in a lighter tone as celebrations of the universality of humour, suggesting they were largely enjoyed simply because they provoked laughter.
No collection of Dutch 17th-century prints would be complete without Rembrandt, an artist who thought deeply about all that it means to be human. As an artist, and especially as an etcher, he stands alone. The Meakins-McClaran collection has a superb selection of nine works (seven of which are on view): four with religious subjects, three genre scenes and two portraits (one a self-portrait-cum-character-study). In addition to the quality of his work and the emotional depth he could convey, it was his range that set him apart from his contemporaries.
Meakins and McClaran were first drawn into the world of prints not by the work of Dutch or Flemish artists, but by the Danish-French painter Camille Pissarro, an Impressionist artist who admired the rural and agrarian life of honest labour, being wary of the industrialization of his century, which he believed deepened social inequality. Although none of his works remain in the collection, prints by 19th-century artists are represented by Jean-François Millet, Édouard Manet and James McNeill Whistler.
The Collectors’ Cosmos offers visitors the pleasure of viewing a stunning collection of prints that evolved naturally around the Meakins-McClaran’s guiding interest in landscape, the striking beauty of the printed line against the white page and a deep curiosity about the world.
The Collectors' Cosmos: The Meakins-McClaran Print Collection is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until November 14, 2021. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.
The Collectors’ Cosmos:
The Meakins–McClaran Print Collection
This beautiful and fully illustrated catalogue takes us through Dr. Jonathan Meakins and Dr. Jacqueline McClaran’s collection’s history, which began forty years ago in Paris following an afternoon in a room full of prints by Camille Pissarro at the Grand Palais.