Since its founding in 1916, the Cleveland Museum of Art has built its collection with an emphasis on the quality, rarity, and significance of individual works of art. The collection of prints and drawings—among the best in the United States—reflects these principles. This legacy of collecting and connoisseurship unfolds for viewers in Treasures on Paper, which showcases more than 70 of the museum’s finest European and American prints and drawings from the 15th to 19th centuries.
Masterpieces such as a series of 50 15th-century engravings hand-colored in gold by the Master of the E-Series Tarocchi that illustrate a philosophical hierarchy of the universe, and a dazzling watercolor of horses fighting by the young Romantic artist Théodore Géricault, helped lay the foundations of the museum’s collection in the 1920s, and the tradition of acquiring beautiful, rare, historically significant prints and drawings has continued into the 21st century. An extremely rare impression of The Rabbit Hunt, the only print Peter Bruegel the Elder etched himself, became a crown jewel of the collection of Dutch and Flemish prints in 2009, and in 2011 a minutely detailed watercolor of the Roman campagna by Carl Ludwig Hackert joined the growing collection of 18th-century plein air landscapes. Magnificent gifts from generous benefactors have immeasurably enriched the collection. Albrecht Dürer’s iconic Four Horsemen from The Apocalypse was acquired for the museum by the Print Club of Cleveland in 1932, and one of Michelangelo’s red chalk studies for the Sistine Chapel ceiling was given by George S. Kendrick and Harry D. Kendrick in memory of their uncle Henry G. Dalton in 1940.
One of the highlights of the print collection is a significant group of 15th-century woodcuts and engravings, extremely rare material that is unusual for an American museum. The first carved woodblocks were printed on textiles or vellum (like Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Christ on the Cross between the Virgin and St. John) until a steady supply of paper finally became available around 1400. These early woodcuts usually illustrate religious subjects for the spiritual edification of a mostly illiterate public. Produced by anonymous craftsmen, these simple, direct images provide a means for an intimate dialogue between the individual and the holy figure depicted. Woodcuts were pasted onto altarpieces and walls to be used for personal devotion and, since they were invested with near magical powers, were sewn into clothing and placed in books and other personal objects for protection.
A majestic composition, the museum’s German Pietà woodcut (about 1460) was probably inspired by three-dimensional sculptures of the subject. Printed on a full sheet of paper (only about 20 northern single-image woodcuts survive), the Pietà was hand-colored with watercolor. Remnants of adhesive on the verso and holes caused by insects suggest that it was pasted inside the cover of a book which preserved it. Extraordinary for its large size, fresh color, and good state of preservation, this is the only known impression of the image.
Secular imagery appears in works such as The Lovers, an engraving by Wenzel von Olmütz after the Housebook Master. The Lovers is related to representations of the garden of love, a popular setting for romance in chivalric literature, and depicts the ideal of courtly love as a noble and inspiring relationship distinguished by faithfulness and mutual devotion. Although a tankard of wine and a cup sit in a cooler at right (wine is often associated with lust) and a vine culminates in two flowers that interlock suggestively above the couple, they are shy and the mood is one of thoughtful reverie. This decorous intimacy is reinforced by the lapdog, which traditionally symbolizes fidelity; the carnations, a flower that connotes purity and is frequently used in art as a token of betrothal; and the lidded jug, a reference to chaste love.
Wenzel produced careful copies of the work of other printmakers, especially the Housebook Master, Martin Schongauer, and Albrecht Dürer. In the 15th century little value was placed on artistic originality and thus no stigma was attached to the imitation of one artist by another. The Lovers was first executed by the Housebook Master, but only two mediocre impressions of the print are known. Wenzel’s faithful copy, which preserves the subtle psychology of love and devotion of the original, is also extremely rare; six impressions are extant, but only one is as fine as the museum’s.
Antonio del Pollaiuolo, a renowned Florentine painter, sculptor, draftsman, and goldsmith, was admired for his dynamic and expressive portrayal of the human figure. Multi-talented, he realized numerous projects but only a relatively small number of his works survive. He is celebrated for his printed masterpiece, Battle of the Nudes from 1470–80,which is among the largest of all 15th-century Italian engravings and perhaps the earliest to be signed with the full name of the artist who designed and executed it. The only known impression of the engraving’s first state, before the plate was re-engraved and printed with a more densely pigmented and blacker ink, the museum’s silvery impression is one of the great masterworks of European art.
The museum’s set of 50 tarocchi cards, engraved by the Master of the E-Series Tarocchi, are also silvery in appearance. Perhaps printmakers were mimicking the delicate gray lines attained in silverpoint drawings, popular beginning in the 15th century and exemplified by Raphael’s Studies of a Seated Female, Child’s Head, and Three Studies of a Baby from about 1508. The sharp end of a metal stylus—often made of silver—leaves a deposit that oxidizes when drawn across a sheet coated with a mixture of lead white and ground bone or eggshell mixed with glue. This example, where the ground was tinted rose, is from Raphael’s “pink sketchbook” comprising ten drawings of the mother and child of roughly equal size. The small format of the sheets would have enabled the artist to carry the notebook as he traveled from Florence to Rome in 1508.
Another of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance, Michelangelo spent much of his early career planning and executing frescoes on the vast ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Study for the Nude Youth over the Prophet Daniel, a red and black chalk study of 1510–11, was preparatory for one of the 20 athletic male nudes, known as ignudi, who act as supporting figures located at each corner of the Old Testament scenes painted down the center of the ceiling. Michelangelo devised the positioning of the ignudi in red chalk drawings before beginning to paint each section of wet plaster. The energy and monumentality of the drawn figure, whose body extends beyond the sheet, suggest the heroic athleticism of the master’s sculpture.
German artists also pursued figure drawing. Albrecht Dürer’s 1507 Arm of Eve, an exquisite chiaroscuro drawing executed in gray and black wash and heightened with white gouache on blue paper, is the only surviving preparatory study for the life-size panels of Adam and Eve in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. With extraordinary economy of means, Dürer suggested the grace and balance of the complete human form in this composition of a disembodied arm and hand. His fine draftsmanship is also apparent in the woodcut The Four Horsemen from The Apocalypse, which illustrates the last book of the New Testament, the Revelations of St. John the Divine. The first horseman, with a bow and crown, has the power to conquer; the second, with a sword, to take peace from the earth; the third, with scales, represents justice; and the fourth, on a sickly pale horse, is Death followed by Hell. In this most powerful image, Dürer suggests vigorous momentum through the windblown clothing of the riders, the windswept clouds, and the figures trampled under the hooves of the approaching horses.
In northern Europe, the 17th century is dominated by Rembrandt, another multi-talented artist who excelled at both painting and printmaking. An experimental and innovative printmaker, Rembrandt was the first to execute works in pure drypoint on the monumental scale of Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves from 1653–55. Drypoint produces blurred lines and rich, velvety shadows but these effects are ephemeral since they decline rapidly as the plate wears. A limited number of rich impressions like the museum’s fine example of the fourth state exist to demonstrate how Rembrandt redefined the expressive potential of printmaking. In the fourth state slashing strokes obscure the spectators that were visible in earlier versions, creating a tenebrous setting that focuses attention on Christ bathed in celestial light. Although drypoint is an inherently linear medium, Rembrandt also used it to obtain tonal qualities associated with painting. A literal illustration of Luke’s description of the cataclysmic event, “and there was a darkness over all the earth,” blackness becomes an active force that threatens to extinguish the light of Christ. Christ Crucified powerfully illustrates the pathos of Christ’s sacrifice and demonstrates Rembrandt’s passionate intensity and genius as a printmaker.
The exhibition also showcases the museum’s outstanding collection of 18th- and 19th-century drawings. Several ambitious, highly finished views of the Italian countryside describe the evolution of the landscape as a genre distinct from figure painting. A sublimely beautiful vision of the Roman campagna by Claude Lorrain introduces the group. Although landscape had long been relegated to the status of mere background for history paintings, Claude’s Arcadian visions elevated the status of landscape painting and influenced generations of artists throughout Europe and America. Works such as View of the Acqua Acetosa from about 1645 combine the artist’s poetic sensitivity to natural phenomena with an ethereality that quietly revolutionized painting in the Western tradition.
One of Canaletto’s views of Venice is among the museum’s outstanding 18th-century landscape drawings. Meticulously finished works such as Capriccio: A Palace with a Courtyard by the Lagoon were immensely fashionable during the 18th century among wealthy aristocrats on the Grand Tour looking for souvenirs of their journey. The view is a fantasy, an amalgamation of architectural details and vistas of the city known as La Serenissima, The Most Serene. By the late 18th century, close observation had become crucial to landscape painters. The German brothers Jakob Philipp Hackert and Carl Ludwig Hackert were among the first artists to adopt the practice of drawing and painting en plein air in Rome. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe praised the brothers’ work from nature: “In Rome at that time, it was unusual to draw from nature . . . least of all did one consider sketching and finishing a fairly large drawing from nature. The locals were all amazed when they saw the two Hackerts roaming the countryside with large portfolios, executing finished outline drawings in pen and ink, or, indeed, highly finished watercolors and even paintings entirely from nature.” Initially influenced by the work of Claude Lorrain, Jakob Philipp Hackert became one of the most successful landscapists working in Italy, transforming the classical landscape tradition through his pursuit of painstaking detail.
Although utterly eclipsed by his famous brother, Carl Ludwig attempted to forge an independent career and specialized in gouache, watercolor made opaque by the addition of chalk with a binding agent, usually gum arabic, as exemplified by The Aqueducts at Caserta, 1789. The degree of finish, minute detail of the vegetation and rocks in the foreground, recession of space, and treatment of light are astonishing. For German artists of the period, attention to the smallest aspects of the natural world was a way of paying homage to the creations of God. Much more than a topographical view, The Aqueducts at Caserta embodies the Romantic vision of nature as the gateway to spiritual knowledge. The faithful rendering of his subjects was essential to Carl Ludwig’s artistic practice, however. His inscription at the lower margin, “painted from nature,” underscores the importance he placed on painting en plein air. Built between 1753 and 1762, the aqueduct was part of a 38-kilometer system that funneled water from Monte Taburno to the palace and park of Caserta in southern Italy. The gouache records a contemporary architectural feat as it simultaneously evokes classical antiquity, harking back once again to Claude Lorrain’s idealized landscapes.
While the range of work in Treasures on Paper provides an overview of some the most significant moments in the history Western art, the work of a few especially celebrated artists is represented in depth. The exhibition features three watercolors by Winslow Homer, who created some of the most luminous and influential works in the history of the medium. As was typical of the artist, A Fisherman’s Daughter (beginning of article) and Boy with Anchor appear initially to address children at play in Gloucester, Massachusetts, America’s busiest seaport; but a darker, more foreboding theme casts a shadow over the sunlit beaches. Fishing had become extremely hazardous during this period, with boats venturing ever further offshore to haul in large catches. The solemnity of the girls in A Fisherman’s Daughter and the weighty anchor pointing out to sea in Boy with Anchor hint at the dangers the children will face when they reach maturity. The Adirondacks provided the setting for many of Homer’s later watercolors. Like his work from Gloucester, the deceptively simple Leaping Trout alludes to the ultimate struggle between life and death.
Edgar Degas, one of the greatest draftsmen of all time, experimented with every conceivable graphic medium. Treasures on Paper includes a self-portrait and a sketch made in Italy during the artist’s early 20s, as well as examples of his innovations in monotype and pastel.
The exhibition concludes with a group of fin de siècle works that point the way toward modern art. Visitors will see a rare, early watercolor by Vincent van Gogh made in Drenthe, a village in the northeastern Netherlands where the artist journeyed in order to paint a countryside unspoiled by the Industrial Revolution. Two works by Paul Gauguin also express disenchantment with the modern, urban world: a drawing of the head of a woman made on his first trip to Tahiti in 1891 and a rare impression of a woodcut from Noa Noa, a series of ten prints documenting his early years in Polynesia. A haunting self-portrait by Paula Modersohn-Becker foreshadows the alternately vibrant and stark effects achieved by the German Expressionists. A unique hand-colored impression of Edvard Munch’s Evening, Melancholy I illustrates the pain of unrequited love. The woodcut depicts the artist’s friend, the art critic Jappe Nilssen, sitting dejectedly on the shore of Åsgårdstrand, a fishing village south of Oslo, pining for his lover who has abandoned him in favor of a rival suitor. The subject exemplifies the universal themes that Munch consistently addressed in his art: love, attraction and union, jealousy and separation, illness, anxiety, and death. The reduction of the sea and beach into flat planes of unmodulated color verges on abstraction, looking ahead to the 20th century.