05/29/2012 05:10 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2012

The Morgan Library's Plein Air Collection Comes as a Nice Surprise

New York's Morgan Library & Museum in New York City has long been associated with the things that its founder, financier J. Pierpont Morgan, liked to collect -- rare, old books and manuscripts, antiques and artworks from the ancient world and the Far East, as well as Old Master paintings from the Renaissance. If that's not your cup of tea, don't go. Unless, of course, you have a fondness for plein air paintings. Plein air?

Plein air: artwork created not just in the studio but outside, and the subject being the outside world. We tend to think of plein air painting as having begun sometime in the middle of the 19th century in Europe, when portraying the land and the people who worked on it was a politically-tinged call for democratic government, reaching its apotheosis during the era of the Impressionists, then retiring to a niche area as the more progressive movements in art (pointillism, fauvism, Cubism, dada, Surrealism, abstract expressionism, Pop, minimalism, conceptual art and all else) moved back inside the studio. The Morgan's collection of plein air painting (142 works and counting) offers an alternative history, seeing its origins as far back as the 17th century (quite unrelated to politics) and extending in its purest form only to the period in which Impressionism in France was just beginning. Seen in this light, the Morgan's plein air collection looks to be an extension of the Old Master paintings found elsewhere in the museum, rather than a repudiation of it.

"These are drawings and oil sketches by artists who are otherwise represented in our collection by their paintings," said Jennifer Tonkovich, drawings and prints curator at the Morgan. At times, she noted, the plein air work was preliminary to a larger oil painting, "but the majority are unrelated to any paintings. This was exploratory work for a number of artists who were experimenting with how to depict light, how to capture the landscape and the use of color. It was the lessons from this that they took back to their larger paintings."

All 142 plein air works were a donation from Eugene and Clare Thaw, and they also have pledged another 350 Old Master drawings to the Morgan. Eugene Thaw (born 1927), a retired art dealer and a member of the board of trustees of the Morgan since 1988, and his wife Clare live in Tesuque, N.M. and began amassing a collection of plein air landscape oil sketches in the mid-1990s. It is by no means their only collecting efforts, as they have a 40-plus year record of buying drawings by European artists from the 16th century to the 20th century, and they also created an 850-object collection of American Indian art, which was donated in 1995 to the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. In the early 2000s, they donated a collection of ancient nomadic art of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The generosity has gone even further, as the Eugene Victor Thaw Art Foundation in Santa Fe was established in 1999 to "educate and enrich the public about classical art through the loaning of artwork to major museums," and the foundation also makes grants, awarding the Morgan Library $1.7 million in 2010, its only award for that year.

Eugene Thaw (his father, a Romanian-born socialist, named him Eugene Victor in honor of American Socialist Party leader Eugene Victor Debs) opened an art gallery in New York City in 1950 with a $4,000 loan from his father, and it was at that gallery that abstract painters Joan Mitchell and Conrad Marca-Relli had their first solo exhibitions. As he noted in a 2007 interview for the Archives of American Art, he and his wife were good friends with Lee Krasner (Krasner "wouldn't stay alone in her own house," when she lived in Springs and the Thaws in Amagansett, Long Island, and when Krasner didn't have a house guest she would "call up Clare, my wife, and say, 'get over here.' And Clare would go and spend the night with her.").

Years later, Eugene helped found the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and was instrumental in putting together the four-volume Jackson Pollock catalogue raisonne in 1978. However, he was not long in the contemporary art field and began moving back in time, buying and selling works (sometimes on his own, sometimes in collaboration with other dealers) on the secondary market by Kandinsky, Redon, German Expressionists, the Fauve and eventually Breton, Corot, Delacroix and Rousseau, even Rembrandt and Bernini. That initial gallery, The New Gallery, became E.V. Thaw & Company when he eventually moved to East 78th Street in Manhattan.
"The Morgan Library is really my life's work," he told the interviewer for the Archives of American Art. With the Morgan in mind, he began acquiring "plein air oil sketches done by artists in the late 18th or early 19th century, mainly in Italy." These were "northern painters," such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Simon Denis, Achille-Etna Michallon and Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, "who went south and painted this dazzling new light."

For the important government-sponsored salons, many of these northern artists painted traditional themes, "the big history paintings," Thaw claimed, but the landscape elements - "the backgrounds, the mountains" -- were based on their oil (on board or on paper) sketches, which they kept in their studios as points of reference. Occasionally, the artists traded sketches with each other, but they were never put on exhibition during their lifetimes or put on sale. "Corot, until his death, had almost all of these. He never sold one of them."

The Thaws' gift of their plein air collection was to both the Morgan Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art ("It is satisfying to Eugene Thaw that curators from two institutions would work with them," Tonkovich said), and it is at the latter institution where they are more often on display. The Met is a larger museum, with more programming and more space to exhibit work, and they often include these plein air oil sketches with other paintings rather than confined them to works on paper shows. Certainly, some of these plein air works are on board or canvas, and even those on paper are less of a challenge for conservators, because the paper is often entirely covered with paint, which protects the substrate from the effects of light.

There is no beginning date to plein air. The French artist Claude Lorrain (1600-82) was renowned for his naturalistic landscapes, but his was not yet an era in which buyers wanted just landscapes, and his outdoor scenes tended to feature seaports, towns and figures from mythology. However, his sketchbooks were filled with drawings of fields, sea and sky that he made on trips to Italy on his own or with fellow artist Nicolas Poussin. It was later in the next century that landscape painting became an accepted subject for artists, led by Valenciennes (1750-1819) in France and John Constable (1776-1837) in England. Both artists were zealots in the cause of getting artists to go outside to draw and paint -- Valenciennes, who taught at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, encouraged his students to get a direct experience of nature, while Constable derided much of the painting of his time as "imitation" and wrote to a fellow artist in 1802, "For the last two years I have been running after pictures, and seeking the truth at second hand." These two artists and others went outside, although how they worked varied quite widely. At times, an entire sketch might be done outside; at other times, it was just a chalk or graphite drawing with the oil painting done in the studio. They worked on paper and board and canvas. The images they created were of things they saw or scenes they imagined. Most of today's plein air societies have adopted specific rules about these kinds of things, and artists get the boot if they veer far from them.

To Tonkovich, Impressionism spelled the end of the oil sketch, the end of plein air as fact-finding mission (the "etude") and its repurposing as finished work of art (the "tableaux"). "There was a change in tastes and in the market for art," she stated. "The artists started to see these sketches not so much as their private visual diaries but as works for the market, things to show and sell at galleries." Plein air, in short, became "self-conscious."