Focusing on key periods and places—15th- to 18th-century Italy, 17th- to 20th-century France, 17th-century Holland, and 20th- and 21st-century America—the Grays sought out works of the highest quality, defined by beauty, visual power, and boldness of execution.
While the most celebrated names appear throughout their collection—Rubens, Boucher, Canaletto, Tiepolo, Seurat, Van Gogh, Degas, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Pollock, de Kooning, and Hockney, among others—the Grays were less interested in celebrity than in greatness, and many of their exceptional drawings bear the names of lesser-known artists. With the addition of works by important Italian Renaissance artists such as Giorgio Vasari, Annibale Carracci, and Lelio Orsi, or French artists Nicolas Poussin, Francois Lemoyne, or Charles le Brun, as well as many others less familiar to the public, the collection became a kind of stimulating stroll through a long and distinguished history of art making via one medium: drawing.
Although landscapes, still lifes, and the occasional abstraction are to be found in their collection, including Vassily Kandinsky’s vertiginous Untitled (about 1915), notably filled with recognizable images derived from the natural world, the Grays largely concentrated on one of the great subjects in Western art: the human figure—nude and clothed, still and active, seated, standing, running, reclining, orating, singing, at play and at work, alone and in groups. For the Grays, the endless and myriad attempts by artists across centuries to render the human form, and by doing so to comment upon the human condition, were of profound importance, indeed a kind of humanistic endeavor. This endeavor was that much more effective, the Grays believed, when expressed through the probing medium of drawing, the most immediate, exploratory, and intimate of art forms.
The Body in the Gray Collection
A few examples give a sense of the riches the collection contains. One of the greatest figure studies of 18th-century Europe, François Boucher’s Study of a Draped Woman Leaning on a Pedestal (1759/61) transcends its subject, its voluminous drapery cascading into almost abstract sculptural form. Auguste Rodin’s Nude Woman Standing, Seen from the Back (1898/1900) encapsulates the “movement at rest” that the sculptor conveyed in his drawings via a line that flows with ease and sensitivity. And the Italian Lelio Orsi’s powerful Apollo Driving the Chariot of the Sun (1544/45) epitomizes the late Renaissance interest in defying space and distorting form, exploding out of its fictive realm and into the viewer’s domain.
Comprised of more than 100 drawings from the Gray collection, this exhibition functions as both a supplement to the 2010 Art Institute exhibition Gray Collection: Seven Centuries of Art and, with the death of Richard Gray last year, as a kind of summing up and memorial. This new exhibition celebrates his and Mary’s extraordinary legacy as both collectors and benefactors. A significant part of their drawings collection has since been either given or promised to the Art Institute, making theirs one of the greatest gifts of art to the Department of Prints and Drawings in its history. This tremendous gift—and the Gray’s collecting as a whole—parallels the Art Institute’s cultivation of and commitment to the art and practice of drawing through the acquisition, interpretation, and display of truly excellent works.