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Nineteenth-Century French Drawings

Acquiring the now-on-view Cleveland collection
Britany Salsbury, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings
March 1, 2023
First Steps, c. 1859–66. Jean-François Millet (French, 1814–1875). 1962.407

Now on view in the James and Hanna Bartlett Prints and Drawings Gallery, Nineteenth-Century French Drawings from the Cleveland Museum of Art celebrates the institution’s holdings in this field, which are widely considered among the best in not only the United States but also the world. Beginning well over a century ago, the museum’s early curators and supporters capitalized on a rich market for what was then contemporary art to acquire works that now serve as this collection’s cornerstone. 

Although the galleries feature drawings that are longtime favorites—such as Odilon Redon’s mysterious Orpheus and Jean-François Millet’s touching First Steps—they also include a selection of works acquired specifically with this exhibition in mind. Together, these works tell the story for the very first time of how the works made their way to Cleveland from artists’ packed Parisian studios, the most elite galleries throughout Europe at the time, and the tense salesrooms of noted auction houses. 

During the museum’s early years, its supporters worked strategically within the art market to make savvy and formative purchases. Curator Theodore Sizer and director William Milliken were among the most instrumental figures in building a collection of 19th-century French drawings. With relatively limited funds, they bought ahead of the market, identifying artists who were affordable then and would stand the test of time. In 1925, the museum purchased Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s imposing portrait Monsieur Boileau at the Café. The sheet presents the artist’s close friend, known as a heavy-drinking gossip columnist in Paris at the time. Boileau is dressed casually in a bowler hat with a glass of red wine before him. He plays dominos on a table, probably at Le Mirliton, a club that he and Toulouse-Lautrec frequented. 

Although the artist is well known today, he was unfamiliar to American audiences at the time, and the purchase was extremely speculative. Monsieur Boileau was featured in one of the first American exhibitions of the artist’s work and was the first unique work by Toulouse-Lautrec to be acquired by a museum in the United States. Among the artist’s most representative portraits, it captivated Sizer and Milliken when it was offered to them through the prestigious New York gallery Wildenstein & Co. They seized on the artist’s obscurity to negotiate a discounted price and secured this quintessential work for Cleveland.   

Two years later, Sizer and Milliken worked just as strategically to acquire Realist artist Honoré Daumier’s watercolor Art Lovers, among the most highly finished examples of a subject for which the artist was best known. The sheet presents several collectors engrossed in closely studying artworks available for sale at Hôtel Drouot, Paris’s premiere auction house since 1852. Known for his incisive caricature, Daumier portrayed his subjects realistically and almost reverentially in this work: each is fully absorbed in looking. Recent analysis by the museum’s conservation staff revealed that Daumier reused the sheet, and several sketches for other works are featured on its back, formerly obscured by a lining paper. The drawing was a highlight of a 1927 auction that dispersed the most important existing private collection of Daumier’s work. Sizer and Milliken recognized this sale as an opportunity to acquire a major drawing for a reasonable price. Although international travel was difficult and required a lengthy sea voyage, Sizer booked a trip to Paris in order to place a bid on Art Lovers in person. He recalled the intimidation of being among the only bidders in the room who was American and not a dealer, but he successfully returned to Cleveland with a major acquisition for its burgeoning collection.

These key early purchases were substantially augmented by gifts from local supporters. Industrialist and early trustee Jeptha Homer Wade studied the French art of his time assiduously in books and magazines before boarding a yacht to Paris, where he perused galleries and met with Milliken to seek out artworks that he later gave to the museum. Wade also frequented New York dealers, including the great champion of Impressionism Paul Durand-Ruel, from whom he bought Edgar Degas’s luminous pastel Dancers. In 1916, it was among his earliest gifts to the CMA.

Support for the French drawings collection continued to develop in the years that followed. Just over a decade later, in 1929, the museum’s exhibition French Art since 1800 offered an opportunity for donor support. It featured numerous works on loan from galleries and dealers, which local collectors acquired and later donated to the CMA. Mr. and Mrs. Lewis B. Williams purchased and later gave Berthe Morisot’s Young Saint John, a touching portrait created on the occasion of the baptism of the artist’s young daughter.

LEFT: Footpath in the Woods 1882–84. Paul Cezanne (French, 1839–1906). Watercolor and graphite on modern laid paper; 47 x 31 cm. Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund, 2021.165. RIGHT: Young Saint John 1890. Berthe Morisot (French, 1841–1895). Pastel on pale blue laid paper; 57.1 x 38.1 cm. Gift of Mrs. Lewis B. Williams, 1975.83

These early purchases and gifts were crucial to establishing the CMA as an international destination for 19th-century French drawings. Organizing the current exhibition afforded the opportunity to revisit the collection and add new works to make our holdings as comprehensive as possible. The subtle but powerful watercolor landscapes of Post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne, for example, have long been an acquisition priority for the museum. We were able to acquire his Footpath in the Woods, which is now on view for the first time. The work presents one of Cezanne’s favorite views on his family’s estate in Southern France. He used strokes of pale color and areas of bare paper to experiment with and interrogate how vision is constructed—in this case, by both absence and presence. Decades before coming to Cleveland, Footpath in the Woods was owned by renowned novelist and poet Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, among the most influential collectors of modern art of their time. They displayed it in their Parisian apartment, where it was viewed by a young Pablo Picasso, inspiring the geometric forms of early Cubism. 

Cezanne’s watercolor is one of numerous works in Nineteenth-Century French Drawings that were acquired within the past several years or that are on view for the first time in the museum’s galleries. Seen alongside the historical legacy of collecting illuminated in the exhibition, these works shed new light on a central part of the CMA’s collection, inviting consideration of how it has developed over the past century and suggesting its future in the current one.