The story of how the Meadows Museum came to host its current exhibit starts somewhere in the 17th century when a group of Spanish artists decided to establish an academy in Seville. Or perhaps, it would be more accurate to begin the story in the 18th century when the academy went through a phase of revival, at which point artist and naturalist Jose Atanasio Eceverría collected and preserved a number of the drawings from both academies. Well, 225 drawings to be exact, 86 of which are on display at the Meadows as part of The Spanish Gesture: Drawings from Murillo to Goya in the Hamburger Kunsthalle.
Wherever you start the story, the narrative of the collection twists and turns for centuries, being sold from one collector to the next until it began collecting dust in 1891 at the Kunsthalle in Hamburg. That is, until one scholar and three museums (Prado, Meadows, Kunsthalle) pulled the drawings from obscurity to document and display the rich, detailed work of Spanish masters seen by almost no one but the artists themselves.
Looking at the drawings requires you step almost close enough to fog up the glass frame. These works look miniature when referenced with work of the same artists elsewhere in the Meadows permanent collection. To see the loose lines of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo's small-scale drawings reveals a different side to the painter when compared to his immense masterpiece, Jacob Laying the Peeled Rods Before the Flocks of Laban, which hangs in the gallery central to the exhibit.
Both the collection's narrative and the comparison with the artist's more well-known, large-scale work is what saves this exhibit from tedium. Certainly, looking at tiny ink on paper sketches is not the jaw-dropping experience of standing, swallowed up by a Murillo painting. This experience is more intimate, more personal. You can see the hand at work. And while drawing was mainly used by painters as preparatory work for a painting, these works are different. Thanks to the incredible scholarship poured into this exhibit, you learn on the wall panels that the Academy was in fact founded to elevate the status of artists. There, Murillo and his fellows could draw for the sake of drawing. They could tinker with lines, imagine new scenes and create. When you get to the end of the exhibit --arranged in chronological order-- you can see that the second academy began to explore new themes, creating larger, allegorical drawings. It's almost as though the first academy allowed for the acceptance of drawing as art and the second academy began to actually create full works of art.
See The Spanish Gesture: Drawings from Murillo to Goya in the Hamburger Kunsthalle through August 31 at the Meadows Museum. Admission for adults is $10.