Suzanne Folds McCullagh, extraordinary drawings connoisseur and curator of early works on paper at the Art Institute for the past 40 years, has recently retired. But her deep love of the collection has brought her back to curate an exquisite exhibition marking the Prints and Drawings Department’s achievements over the past quarter century: Master Drawings Unveiled: 25 Years of Major Acquisitions. Here are some secrets she shared with Suzanne Karr Schmidt recently about this beautiful ensemble, now on view through January 29:
I would say my favorite drawing in the show is the Boucher, showing the height of his ability as a draughtsman and the extraordinary versatility of the human form. It was still in its original frame (with wavy glass) when it arrived, and it demonstrates the pinnacle of Academic glory beginning to appeal to the masses. It takes an exercise in life drawing that would usually have been done in just red chalk, and elevates it to a new level with additions in black and white chalk to make a work of art to be treasured for its own sake, no longer just an academic exercise. It is just bursting with energy.
Is there a drawing in the show that almost got away? Or conversely, that you didn't expect to buy?
The answer to both questions would be the Georges Lemmen Bourgeois Interior. Nancy Ireson (at that time the Rothman Family Associate Curator) went prowling around before the opening of the Salon du Dessin [ed. note: an art fair that specializes in drawings]. When we saw the Lemmen leaning against the wall, we knew that it was the graphic equivalent of our Seurat painting of the Grande Jatte. Like the Seurat, the Lemmen was shown at Les Vingt [ed. note: an important annual art exhibition in Brussels that existed from 1884 through 1893]. And although we had acquired a superb portrait of Anna Boch by Lemmen a few years earlier, this major composition (never realized in paint) filled out the picture of this Belgian artist more fully.
While we were not looking for a Lemmen per se, we had the goal the broadening of our late 19th-century holdings, so we were at once building on strength and filling a gap. To cap it off, both Lemmen drawings were acquired through the legacy of two of our most beloved and long-time volunteers, Marjorie and Suzanne Pochter. One can look at the women working happily together and recall the Pochters with their good friend Katherine Shea. Apparently we were just ahead of a New York collector who was interested in it but had no reserve.
Which are the most cutting edge artists in the show? Was it their subject matter? Their media?
Some works are cutting edge in subject matter or treatment, such as the soft focus and mystery of the Delaroche, the haunting menace of the Delville (pictured above), or the utter foolery of the Beckmann. Others are daring in their media or manufacture, such as the Caillebotte Rainy Day and the Gabriel de Saint-Aubin—both using straight-edges to get the placement right. Labruzzi and Huet were among the first to go out and paint in a landscape, using pastel instead of watercolor. Menzel took up daily life in its harsh reality at the same time that he began to use opaque watercolor or gouache around 1850.
This show represents 25 years of collecting drawings at the Art Institute, and mirrors earlier exhibitions covering the same amount of time. What do you think the next installment in 2041 might look like?
With the superb effort that Victoria Sancho Lobis is giving our relatively weaker Northern schools and the goal of broadening our global representation, I predict there will be major acquisitions in those categories, thanks to the enormous generosity of Dorothy Braude Edinburg. I also anticipate that the museum will acquire distinguished examples of Latin American 20th- and 21st-century works, tracked down by Mark Pascale and hopefully sponsored by new and committed donors.
François Boucher. Academic Study of a Reclining Male Nude, c. 1750. Regenstein Endowment Fund.
Georges Lemmen. Bourgeois Interior, 1890/91. Suzanne and Marjorie Pochter and Print and Drawing Funds.
Jean Delville. Medusa, 1893. Regenstein Endowment Fund.