The Place Where Art Begins: Beauty’s Awakening at the AGA

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Study of the Figure of Love for “Dante’s Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice, 1874, red, grey and brown chalks on wove paper, 59 x 42.3 cm. NGC. Gift of the Lanigan Collection, 2015

Drawing is a fundamental and universal art. Painters make preparatory sketches. Architects produce elevations and cross-sections. Furniture-makers create conceptual drawings. And many great ideas, from apps to organizations, are said to have begun as doodles on the backs of napkins. “Drawing is incredibly important,” said Sonia Del Re, Associate Curator of European, American, and Asian Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), in an interview with NGC Magazine. “It is often the place where art begins.” 

An NGC touring exhibition currently on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) celebrates drawing as fine art, tracing its evolution in Britain during the Victorian Age. Beauty’s Awakening: Drawings by the Pre-Raphaelites and Their Contemporaries from the Lanigan Collection presents over 120 outstanding drawings by more than 60 artists, highlighting the importance of the practice during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837–1901). From preparatory sketches for paintings to polished watercolours and gouaches intended as works of art in and of themselves, the exhibition celebrates not only the skill of the artists, but also something of a revolution in art.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Study for “The Vintage Festival,” c. 1869, black chalk and graphite on two joined sections of wove paper, 24.3 x 55.7 cm. Lanigan Collection, Saskatoon. Promised gift to the National Gallery of Canada

“The Victorian Age was such a rich time, not only politically and economically, but artistically as well,” says Del Re. “The period was especially prolific for drawing, and this exhibition seeks to showcase that.”

Beauty’s Awakening, curated by Del Re, combines previous and promised gifts of 19th-century British drawings from the collection of Dennis T. Lanigan to the national collection. Featured artists include Frederic Leighton, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Edward John Poynter, and others from the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements. 

Edward Burne-Jones, Study for “The Wedding Feast of Sir Degrevaunt” (for William Morris’ Red House), 1860, watercolour, gouache and pen and violet ink over graphite on wove paper, 26.2 x 29.5 cm. Lanigan Collection, Saskatoon. Promised gift to the National Gallery of Canada

First presented at the NGC last fall, Beauty’s Awakening travelled to London, England, earlier this spring. In London, the exhibition was displayed at the Leighton House Museum — the former home and studio of English painter and sculptor Frederic Leighton, whose work is included in the show. “It was truly fantastic to see a Canadian collection of British drawings go back to London and be presented in the house of an artist included in the exhibition,” says Del Re. “Dr. Lanigan visited Leighton House in the 1970s, but never imagined that his personal art collection would one day be exhibited in the space.”

The drawings in Beauty’s Awakening have found a similar local connection to the AGA. “One of the fascinating things about these Pre-Raphaelite drawings is that they were assembled in Western Canada by an art collector from Saskatoon,” Catherine Crowston, Executive Director and Chief Curator at the AGA, told NGC Magazine.

As at the NGC and Leighton House, the AGA’s presentation is organized thematically, exploring the influences of Classical art, Christianity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance on Pre-Raphaelite art. Seeking to return to a time before the mannered compositions of artists such as Joshua Reynolds and Gainsborough, the Pre-Raphaelites instead produced highly detailed works with complex compositions harking back to Italian art of the 14th century.

Edward Burne-Jones, Study for the Slave in “The Wheel of Fortune,” c. 1875–83, black chalk with wet brush on laid paper, 29.8 x 16.1 cm. Lanigan Collection, Saskatoon. Promised gift to the National Gallery of Canada

“All of these artists were incredibly diverse in their use of media,” says Crowston. “All sorts of drawings are represented, from charcoal to chalk and more.” The artists also experimented with a variety of different subjects. While some found inspiration in the British landscape, others portrayed family members or complex scenes from mythology and literature in their work. For example, while one drawing by George Frederic Watts depicts the figure of death, another by William Holman Hunt —The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro (1848) — explores myths and legends from the Medieval period. “The drawings are so detailed that visitors have spent a lot of time observing their intricacies,” says Crowston. 

Regardless of their media or subject matter, the drawings reveal the evolution and importance of drawing during the Pre-Raphaelite period. Whether showcasing an attempt to working out a thorny composition as in Edward Burne-Jones’ Study for the Slave in “The Wheel of Fortune” (c. 1875–1883), or presenting a sensual portrait such as Frederick Sandys’ King Pelles’ Daughter Bearing the Vessel of the Sanc Graal (1861), Beauty’s Awakening ultimately attests to the exceptional skill of Pre-Raphaelite artists and their unique contribution to 19th-century art.

Organized by the National Gallery of Canada and presented as a part of the NGC@AGA exhibition series, Beauty’s Awakening: Drawings by the Pre-Raphaelites and Their Contemporaries from the Lanigan Collection is on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta until November 13, 2016.  

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