By Dorothea S. Michelman
When Andrew Robison joined the National Gallery of Art back in 1973, his assignment was nothing less than “to build a great national collection of prints and drawings like the great national collections of prints and drawings in Europe.”
The first challenge the new curator faced was the task of familiarizing himself with the collection, which meant six months of commuting between Washington and Alverthorpe, home of the distinguished philanthropist and art collector Lessing J. Rosenwald. The son of German immigrants, Rosenwald had brought together a remarkable collection of several thousand master drawings, prints and rare books, 8,000 of these were donated to the National Gallery of Art in 1943. Thirty years later, about half of the Rosenwald collection—in itself comprising approximately half of the Gallery’s graphics collection—was in Washington, with the other half still at Alverthorpe, outside Philadelphia. So for six months, Robison’s initial undertaking was to examine these treasures, learning the collection as each box was opened.
Charged with building a great national collection, Robison explored opportunities to expand the museum’s holdings in each of the major schools, including Italian, French, British and American drawings. But, as he recalls, “in addition to that, I wanted to find some way that the National Gallery would do something special in an American context. In other words, we wanted to have a great collection of Italian drawings – but would we ever have a collection which was distinctively better than that of the Met or the Morgan? As for the Gallery’s French, British, and American drawings—fine as they were—other museums again had the decided edge in the scope of their collections of each of these schools.”
Happily, German master drawings presented a rather different picture.
“No American museum seemed to be actively pursuing German drawings, and we already had very good Renaissance drawings—from Dürer to Holbein—as well as very good expressionist drawings.” In considering these two very different poles at each end of the temporal scale, Robison realized he had found his “something special.”
“What we could do,” continues Robison, today Andrew W. Mellon senior curator, “was to try to bridge the two, to try to show the whole panoply of German art through the centuries, which would mean particularly trying to build up late 16th century Mannerism, the Baroque period, Rococo in the 18th century, and 19th century Romanticism. Enhancing area of both strength and weakness, both individual drawings and groups of artworks have been obtained, as well as entire collections. An impressive example of the significance of this last type of acquisitions – a critical element in developing a national collection – is the survey collection of German-born art historian Professor Julius Held. A gathering of German drawings across the late sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, the arrival of these works effectively closed the immense gap between the Gallery’s two strengths, the German Renaissance and German Expressionism.
Thirty years later, visitors to the National Gallery of Art can savor the fruits of Robison’s concept. Actively pursuing individual works by German artists, adding to these strengths at both ends of the scale and then building bridges between has given the nation an incomparable treasure: a collection of German drawings spanning the centuries, the largest in America.
In a collection of superlatives, this is where you will find the greatest number of Dürers in the United States – ten in all – gathered under one roof. Or the country’s only Grünewald work. And arguably the nation’s finest drawings of Hans Baldung Grien.
At the same time, the National Gallery is well aware of continuing gaps in its bridge survey, and thus keeps an eye out for paintings of the Romantic era and works by lesser-known artists including Josef Heinz and Hans Hoffmann.
The collection as a work in progress can also be seen by viewing the museum’s 20th century holdings. Witnesses from the first half of the century include a wealth h of Master drawings by Otoo Dix, George Grosz and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (honored in 2003 with a major retrospective of his works in various media, the first major international exhibition in over thirty years). In contrast, neo-Expressionism and other areas remain relatively under-represented.
Still, as statistics proudly demonstrate the National Gallery of Art’s overall collection of works on paper has expanded tremendously in just three decades, from 2,372 master drawings to over 10,000 by the year 2000.
Twice a month, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, tours in German are offered by docent volunteers who have completed a two-year art history program given by the Gallery. But more participants would be welcome.
A disappointed Annette Pozzo, one of the German-speaking docents, notes that there are few requests for German-language tours, primarily because the majority of visitors are comfortable with English, although there is the occasional American taking the tour to brush up his or her German!
Photos: Andrew Robison with Dürer “An Oriental Ruler on his Throne” and “Young Woman in Nederlandish Dress”.Albrecht Dürer “Madonna and Child”, Matthias Grünewald “Crucifixion”, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, “Iris.”