The buried treasure on Michigan Avenue

Italian Drawings Before 1600 in the Art Institute of Chicago
January 2, 1998

In 1922 William F. E. Gurley presented about 4,000 drawings, including works by old masters and English and American artists, to the Art Institute of Chicago. Gurley, a distinguished geologist and avid collector of coins, stamps and rare books, gave the drawings in commemoration of his mother, Leonora Hall Gurley, under whose name the collection is known today. It was one of the most generous donations of drawings to an American museum, and the publication of the present volume, the first in a series of three dedicated to the Italian drawings at the Art Institute, marks the 75th anniversary of this event. In the following years, the museum continued to be the lucky recipient of further donations. In 19, over 600 old master drawings came from the heirs of another collector, Charles Deering, and on his death in 1943, Gurley gave a further 6,000 drawings. These bequests form the core of the present collection; the Art Institute, however, continued to acquire drawings, and some of the most splendid sheets were purchased in the past few years.

Known as the "buried treasure on Michigan Avenue", the drawings in the Charles Deering and Leonora Hall Gurley memorial collections remained little studied for a long time. The first critical research began with the appointments of Ulrich Middeldorf as professor at the University of Chicago in 1934 and of Carl O. Schniewind as the first curator of prints and drawings. In the late 1950s and 1960s great connoisseurs, such as Philip Pouncey, John Gere, Jacob Bean and Konrad Oberhuber, came to study the drawings and many attributions now accepted in the catalogue were first proposed by these scholars. To many students, however, the sole source of information on the Italian drawings in Chicago has been the excellent but not comprehensive catalogue of 150 sheets, exhibited in Washington and Chicago in 1979-80.

Work on the present catalogue began more than a decade ago when Suzanne Folds McCullagh, curator of earlier prints and drawings, embarked on the documentation of the collection. Shortly afterwards she was assisted by Laura Giles, appointed research curator for Italian drawings in 1991. The project was supported by several grants, one of them enabling the institute to invite 17 scholars to Chicago to participate in the documentation. The present volume comprises about 700 drawings, all in black and white, and of the most splendid sheets are also reproduced in large colour plates. The first part of the book discusses some 353 drawings, in alphabetical order, that could be attributed to specific artists or to their entourage. Almost all of the major Italian Renaissance masters are represented, ranging from Pisanello and Carpaccio to Raphael, Giulio, Correggio, Parmigianino and Pontormo, up to sheets by later 16th-century artists such as Barocci, Veronese and the Zuccaro brothers. The catalogue entries are concise and informative, placing the drawings within their art-historical context; close attention is given to a technical analysis, resulting in an exemplary description of the state of conservation, paper and possible watermarks. Matters of attribution are treated carefully, giving a balanced summary of the sometimes varying scholarly views. The fact that many scholars were consulted also shows that the preparation of such catalogues is increasingly a joint effort. This is largely due to ever-increasing specialisation in a field where "all-round" connoisseurs have become a rather rare species. Two further sections of the book treat the works of lesser quality, including the anonymous drawings and 263 sheets after or inspired by 16th-century works. The fact that almost half the catalogue consists of those drawings also reflects the distinctly uneven quality of the Gurley and Deering collections.

As McCullagh states in the introduction, the Art Institute is well known for the high quality of the drawings acquired over the past 50 years. Most striking are the pen and ink drawing from a sketchbook by Pisanello, the early portrait in metalpoint by Giovanni Badile, Camillo Boccacino's Virgin Annunciate, Pontormo's early and later abandoned design for one of the frescoes in the Certosa di Galluzzo or Bandinelli's impressive head studies of a youth, acquired only recently. Many discoveries, however, were also made among the Gurley drawings. Sheets by Bassano, Cesi, Cigoli, Pomarancio, Ligozzi, and many others could be identified as preparatory drawings for specific projects. The most impressive discovery, however, is a study of a right arm, by Raphael, previously overlooked despite its traditional attribution to the master. Carefully executed in black and white chalk, this powerful study joins Raphael's late drawings, such as the so-called "auxiliary cartoons" for the "Transfiguration" in the Vatican Galleries. Most probably it is related to the fresco of Saint Peter in the Sala di Costantino painted by Giulio Romano around 1524.

This is an important contribution to the field of old master drawings, with many discoveries. Since many sheets are reproduced here for the first time, this will certainly stimulate further research.

Florian Harb specialises in old master drawings, Christie's, London.

Italian Drawings Before 1600 in the Art Institute of Chicago: A Catalogue of the Collection

Author - Suzanne Folds McCullagh and Laura M. Giles
ISBN - 0 691 01748 4
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £85.00
Pages - 455

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