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Drawn greatness in Murray Hill

drawings drawn morgan library museum

There are lots of drawings of interest in a new exhibit hosted by The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.

I caught “Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection” last weekend and can confirm the existence of what The New Yorker calls a “hit parade” of extraordinary drawings on paper. From the nightmarish charcoal works of Odilon Redon to the seemingly dashed-off illustrated letters from Vincent Van Gogh, choosing any highlight is difficult. Here are some notes on two pieces that stayed with me—one of which was the work of painter George Romney.

British philanthropist John Howard (1726-1790) was a man of considerable means, and after having discovered unfit conditions at the county prison in the East of England when he was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, he personally pursued prison reform and inspected several hundred prisons across Europe. Howard found a penal system rife with a variety of horrors—lack of access to water for inmates, overcrowding, vermin infestations—and published an account and recommendations for addressing the problems in The State of the Prisons in England, and An Account of the Principal Lazarettos of Europe.

Portrait artist George Romney (1734-1802) was among Howard’s advocates, and this haunting black ink and gray wash drawing, “John Howard Visiting a Prison,” is reported to be one of “a huge number of studies for a proposed painting of Howard” doing his life’s work. In line with Howard’s mission, Romney puts greater focus on the prisoners than he does the reformer. Lots of emotional heft is in the foreground here—powerful suggestions of horror, distress, and despair are rendered with minimal lines in Romney’s subjects’ faces—with an appropriately featureless Howard as observer, leaning in beneath the arch in the backdrop.

drawings drawn morgan library museum

George Romney, “John Howard Visiting a Prison” (ca. 1780-1785), pen and black ink and gray wash over graphite. 12 3/4 x 21 inches. Via The Morgan Library & Museum.

This 18th century obsessively detailed and ambitious vision for a French National Library by French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728–1799) was part of a proposal for a project that never came to fruition—as was the fate of most of his designs. Commissioned to plan a new building for the institution around 1780, Boullée hoped to re-work the existing courtyard (I think?) and had intended for library staff to fulfill requests from borrowers by passing off books between the tiers that line the walls of a cavernous reading room.

Fitted with columns and grandiose arches drafted in pen and black and brown ink, Boullée’s democratic concept for the “Interior of a Library” allowed for a large open floor between the shelves of books—the innumerable pillar-like spines of which, furnished in the architect’s single ruled line, prove jaw-dropping under close examination—so that “visitors (were) free to wander about and converse in small groups,” wrote the University of Chicago Library’s Nancy Spiegel in 2011.

drawings drawn morgan library museum

Étienne-Louis Boullée, “Interior of a Library” (1780-1785), pen and black and brown ink, gray wash, over faint traces of black chalk. Via The Morgan Library & Museum.

See Romney’s and Boullée’s work at the “Drawn to Greatness” exhibit, which spans five hundred years and is inclusive of “more than 150 masterworks from the Renaissance to the twentieth century.” It runs through January 7th.

Header image: Francisco de Goya (1746–1828), “Leave it All to Providence (Dejalo todo a la probidencia),” 1816-1820, black ink and gray wash, Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum, 1999.22.