Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Yale Exhibit Romances The Last Of The Gentleman Scholars

Pierre-Joseph Redoute, Plum Branches Intertwined, 1802-04, watercolor on vellum.
(Images Courtesy Of Yale Center For British Arts.)

When Charles Ryskamp was interviewed in 2004, he found the reporter's questions about his background so tedious he snapped: "I don't want this to be an obituary." Ryskamp needn't have worried. The one-time director of both the Morgan Library and Museum and the Frick Collection died on March 26, 2010, with the best possible remembrance of his life and career on display at the Yale Center For British Art. Varieties of Romantic Experience: Drawings from the Collection of Charles Ryskamp, an exhibit of 200 works from his private collection, opened six weeks before his death at age 81, and will run through April 25, 2010.

George Stubbs, A Sleeping Cheetah ("A Tyger"), 1788, mezzotint on wove paper.

Charles Ryskamp might well be the last of a dying breed: the gentleman scholar. At age 7, he began to organize, catalog, and label the books in his home library. By age 13 he was buying original art, and galleries and auction houses put him on their mailing lists. Collecting art was a lifelong passion, one he ceaselessly pursued for nearly 70 years. He obtained a first-rate education in English literature, earning a bachelor's degree from Calvin College, a master's degree and doctorate from Yale, and later, adding post-graduate work at Cambridge. (He became a full professor of English at Princeton in 1969, specializing in the work of English poet William Cowper.) But in art history he was entirely self-taught. With a good eye, a sharp mind, and a devoted heart, he created one of the finest privately held collections of drawings in the world.

Josephus Augustus Knip, River Landscape With Distant Cliffs, 1809, water color over graphite on wove paper with double framing lines in gray ink.

In the art world, Ryskamp's area of collecting was primarily English and European prints and drawings of the Romantic Era, or roughly 1789 to 1850. He gravitated towards well-established artists, such as Goya, Turner, Blake, and Durer, saying: ''If you look at the greatest masters, I think you just have a sense of quality, that's hard to analyze.'' His collecting was also governed by pragmatism. He concentrated on prints until the late 1950's, but when they became unaffordable, he moved on to lower-priced drawings. Later, as director of the Morgan and the Frick, he shifted his sights to acquisitions that would not compete with the works of either museum.

William John Thomas Collins, Cypresses At The Villa d'Este, Tivoli, 1838, pen and ink and watercolor over graphite on wove paper.

These limits placed on the collection were, ironically, what made it so important. His commitment to search out works not typically found in museums led Ryskamp to assemble over time one of the world's best collections of drawings from the Danish Golden Age. Rather than focusing on more expensive paintings, his emphasis on drawings allowed him to purchase works that were often overlooked by wealthier collectors and institutions. Ryskamp summed up his prized artworks this way: ''As I looked at what I had accumulated, these hundreds and hundreds of drawings, I realized that I had equally good collections for France, Germany, Holland, Denmark. And that was almost unheard of. I can't think of any museum which would have all well represented.''

Adolph Menzel, Carl Johan Arnold, ca.1848, graphite on wove paper.

Ryskamp hand-picked the 200 drawings in the Yale show, along with co-curator Matthew Hargraves. They represent about one-third of his total collection of works on paper. The show was the realization of a cherished dream: "I have never before known an exhibition to show Romantic drawings of all of these countries together. I have long hoped for such an exhibition, and it is a rare privilege to have this wish fulfilled." The breadth of subject matter on display is as amazing as the array of artists. The works are grouped by content, with sections covering land and sea, the natural world, religion, the human figure, and the imagination. Within each area are drawings by such heavy-hitters as Conelius Varley, Henry Fuseli, Caspar David Friedrich, Camille Corot, Eugene Delacroix, Edgar Degas, Johan Thomas Lundbye, and C.W. Eckersberg.

J.M.W. Turner, Shields Lighthouse, 1820-1830, (trial proof A), mezzotint on laid paper.

In an essay accompanying the show, Ryskamp emphasized his enduring dedication to the arts: "As much as possible I have devoted my life to the appreciation, study and teaching of art and literature." When asked for advice by a beginning art collector he said: ''I think you should go and look. And don't have a goal in mind.'' A life spent seeking out great art wherever he could find it enabled Charles Ryskamp to assemble a group of artworks that will inspire collectors for generations to come. And he added one last brush stroke without which the portrait of an art collector is incomplete: "I collect in order to give to others. I plan to share what I have collected as long as I live and, if possible, bequeath what is left of my collections to public institutions." The greater part of Charles Ryskamp's art collection has been donated to the Morgan Library.

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