Dreams and Echoes: Drawings and Sculpture in the David and Celia Hilliard Collection Through February 16, 2014
“If Girtin had lived, I would have starved” declared J.M.W. Turner, one of the iconic painters of the 19th Century. But who was Girtin ? One of his watercolors can be found in the collection of David and Celia Hilliard, now on display in the Print and Drawing gallery at the Art Institute. Indeed, several great, but lesser known, 18thth C. British watercolorists are also in their collection. Cornelius Varley’s 1801 rendition of bleak old Conway Castle, complete with withering tree, is another fine example of the kind of things the Hilliards have collected in their jaunts though the less traveled byways of European art history. They like things that are dark and moody, especially the Symbolist predecessors of Surrealism. Among contemporary artists, their great discovery was an atmospheric charcoal from remote Cranberry Island as rendered by the living American artist, Emily Nelligan (b. 1925). When was the last time you saw an exhibit of contemporary Romantic landscapes in a major American art museum?
Not all the artists in this show are that far off the beaten path, but if the artists are well known, the piece is likely to be as unusual as the depiction of a dead sparrowhawk by William Merritt Chase. Done at the age of 20 when the young Indiana man first went to art school in New York, his extraordinary talent was just as obvious as that of the teenage Picasso, who is also represented in this show..
Contemplative 19th C. French landscape is in the collection, but rather than a drawing by Corot, the Hilliards collected a dark, moody pastel by Corot’s student, Francois Louis Francais. And rather than collecting the work of a famous 17th C. Dutch landscapist like Ruisdael, the Hilliards collected a bizarre winter scene by his contemporary, Anthonie Waterloo (1609-1690), a self taught artist who was also an art dealer.
Recently, the Hilliards have added sculpture to their collection, but dark or macabre visions seem better suited for 2-dimensional works where they are more like visions of an imaginary world rather than intruding into the space, light, and air of our own. The dramatic chiaroscuro qualities of late Romantic sculpture is best exemplified here by the brooding bat-winged “Satan” modeled by Jean Jacques Feuchere (1807-1852). Even the pastel colored, glass paste nude relief by Henry Cros (1840-1907) seems to belong in a mausoleum, though it’s painterly qualities must have fascinated contemporaries with a resemblance to the Impressionism of Renoir.