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Nineteenth-Century French Drawings

The widely recognized collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art
Britany Salsbury, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings
December 22, 2022
Art Lovers, c. 1863. Honoré Daumier (French, 1808–1879). 1927.208

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection of 19th-century French drawings is widely recognized as one of the best not only in the United States but also internationally. The collection began more than a century ago in the institution’s inaugural year of 1916 with the acquisition of a luminous pastel of ballet dancers by Edgar Degas. Important additions to the collection—such as a newly purchased watercolor landscape by Paul Cezanne and a radiant cloud study by early Impressionist Eugène Boudin generously given by trustees Joseph P. and Nancy F. Keithley—continue today. Nineteenth-Century French Drawings from the Cleveland Museum of Art, opening in January, features highlights from these holdings, presenting both longtime favorites and exciting new works. 

Drawing transformed radically in 19th-century France. For centuries, it had served as a means of artistic training and private studies but expanded into an independent medium with rich potential for exploration. New materials became available to artists during an age of industrial revolution and scientific experimentation. Media such as fabricated chalks, brightly colored pastels, and textured or toned specialty papers encouraged artists—from conservative practitioners such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres to members of the avant-garde including Berthe Morisot—to reconsider their practices. The artworks that they produced were displayed at a growing number of public and private exhibition venues, including elite galleries and the large public Salon. This new visibility built an audience for the medium, one attracted by drawing’s intimacy and its unique techniques and subjects. In France and abroad, museums and collectors began to acquire these works while they were still contemporary art.

Sheet of Studies and Sketches
Sheet of Studies and Sketches 1858. Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917). Graphite, pen and darkbrown ink, and watercolor on thick ivory wove paper; 30.3 x 23.5 cm. John L. Severance Fund, 1951.430

Nineteenth-Century French Drawings from the Cleveland Museum of Art features sheets spanning over a hundred years, beginning chronologically with Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson’s highly finished The Meeting of Orestes and Hermione, created around 1800 to illustrate a luxury publication of French playwright Jean Racine’s tragic drama Andromaque. The exhibition focuses on the new and innovative ways that artists used technique and offers explanations of materials and processes. The works throughout the galleries also tell the story of how Cleveland’s remarkable collection of 19th-century French drawings was built, including anecdotes from the museum’s archives. For example, the CMA’s early curator Henry Sayles Francis was so taken by Honoré Daumier’s Art Lovers—a watercolor of three connoisseurs—that he traveled to Paris to acquire it, an unprecedented move given the difficulty of international travel during the 1920s. 

The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated publication, the first to document this collection. Essays by leading scholars—including curators, a paper conservator, and an artist—offer various perspectives on the topic, while catalogue entries reveal new research and discoveries about each of the works on view. Together, the publication and exhibition celebrate this extraordinary collection and illuminate its legacy over the course of decades.