WILLIAMSTOWN, Massachusetts -- The latest exhibition to open at the Clark Art Institute is not one to be hurried through. Sneeze as you walk by a piece and you might miss a rarely seen Vincent van Gogh or a Jackson Pollock or maybe a Henri Matisse.
“Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection,” which opens on Saturday, is geared toward the aesthete, but even the most casual of museum-goers will find a treasure (or twenty).
The exhibition is expansive, featuring 150 drawings from the Eugene V. Thaw Collection. Thaw, a famous art dealer, scholar and collector, worked with his wife Clare to build an eclectic compilation of drawings from the Renaissance period through the modern era.
“Each of them could be the prize [works] of any institution in the world,” said Olivier Meslay, the director of the Clark. The exhibition was meant to be a celebration of his collection, but it’s also become a celebration of his life, as Thaw died earlier this year. The majority of his collection will be in the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City and the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown.
But from Saturday until April 22, the collection finds a new home at the Clark.
Walking through the exhibition, each room (“Drawn to Greatness” spans over several rooms and takes place at the Clark Center and in the Eugene V. Thaw Gallery for Works on Paper), the sheer magnitude of works is stunning.
Although the works in the collections are all categorized as drawings or sketches, they all have a finished quality to them, said Jay A Clarke, a curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Clark.
Some works seem like ghosts of familiar masterpieces, making them both familiar and strange.
“Three Studies of a Dancer” by Edgar Degas reveals some of the groundwork for his “Little Dancer Age Fourteen,” among other works. The chalky impressionistic quality of the work is familiar, as is the stance of the figures in the piece. Those less than familiar with Degas work may not make the connection with his famous statue of the dancer, but those who more familiar with his work will do a double take.
Certain pieces in the collection, like “Portrait of Marie-Therese Walter,” by Pablo Picasso, give a glimpse into rarely seen aspects of the artists’ lives. The portrait is haunting featuring his lover about a year after she gave birth to their child, and around the time when Picasso began an affair with photographer Dora Maar. Walter’s eyes seem to bore into the viewer, not necessarily in an accusatory manner, but knowingly.
“There’s a sadness and loneliness to the piece,” Clarke said.
In another section of the exhibition, a series of letters from Vincent van Gogh to his friends like Emile Bernard (a fellow painter) hangs next to a few works by Paul Cezanne.
“He [van Gogh] would write letters to his friends and show them what he was working on,” Clarke said.
Sketches of a few of van Gogh’s famous pieces lay beside his carefully written letters. The sketches somehow feel more personal than the written message, with van Gogh sharing wisps of his ideas with a fellow artist.
The exhibition also exposes a few experimental phases of some artists’ careers.
Take Henri Matisse’s “Still Life with a Chocolatiere.” It’s an expressive piece, marking a movement away from his former style.
“ . . . the artist [was] really trying out different things with pen and ink,” Clarke said.
Or perhaps Degas’ “Landscape with a Path Leading to a Copse.”
“It’s nearly [an] abstract landscape,” Clarke said. But a few distinctive lines in the trees and a pathway running through the field ground the work and bring it back from the point of abstraction.
The Thaw collection, while eclectic, brings a unique view of Western drawing from the 1400s through the 1900s. It brings popular satirical period pieces like Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s “Scene of Contemporary Life: The Quack Dentist” or his “Drunken Punchinello,” to light, as well as mysterious works that perhaps deserve a bit more attention.
“The Tree Man,” a charcoal and graphite work, featuring a shadowy man/tree hybrid, by Odilon Redon. His other works included in the show are anthropomorphic -- one combines a woman’s head with the body of a spider -- and mysterious.
“He’s probably not as well known as he should be,” Clarke said.
Other highlights from “Drawn to Greatness,” include works by Rembrandt van Rijn, Francisco de Goya, Victor Hugo (who was better known as an author), Jackson Pollock, Mary Cassatt, Claude Monet and Caspar David Friedrich.
“Drawn to Greatness,” will run through April 22 at the Clark. For more information visit clarkart.edu.