I had the privilege of joining a curator’s tour of Drawn By New York, an exhibition at the too-little-visited New-York Historical Society. (Even if there were no other reason to love it, there’s that 1804 hyphen.)
The curator, Roberta Olson, took the 8500 objects in the Historical Society’s collection of drawings and watercolors and pulled out about 150 with which to tell a clutch of different stories. One story is about birds: one of the Society’s great treasures, maybe comparable to the Thomas Cole “Course of Empire” paintings (no, actually, I’ll say it, more beautiful and more representative of the myth of America), is its collection of watercolors by John James Audubon, including all the final drawings for The Birds of America. Roberta practially persuaded us that the plate of the Carolina Parakeet anticipates futurism in its active spiral of bright, noisy birds. But there are also a set of ravishing birds that she’s identified as dating to the 16th century (!). The Society’s collections also can tell stories about the American landscape, the American peoples (including remarkable portraits by Saint-Memin of Osage Indian leaders), American habits, and of course the city of New York. There’s reflection on the making of art, from a school-piece calligraphic drawing of a horse by a Pennsylvania teenager to a group of sketches of the young John Singer Sargent goofing around the studio by his Paris roommate, James Carroll Beckwith. Eccentric masterworks include a thirteen-figure silhouette party.
The show is up till January 7 and it’s really worth a visit. While you’re there you can also look at their great collection of Hudson River School landscapes.