The Clapp Drawings and “Object-Based Research”

Figure 1


The Clapp Drawings and “Object-Based Research”

Author: Christopher Nygren

Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture and Director, Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program

In 1941, the University of Pittsburgh purchased an album containing about 300 old master drawings from George Hubbard Clapp. Clapp graduated from Pitt in 1877 and went on to make a fortune in the aluminum industry as the founder of Alcoa. He also served as the chairman of Pitt’s Board of Trustees for more than 40 years before his death in 1949 (Clapp Hall was built and named in honor of G.H. Clapp shortly after his death). How exactly he came into possession of these drawings remains unclear. All we know is that they entered the University’s collection of art in 1941 and became one of the foundation stones of the University Art Gallery (UAG). 

I have been intrigued by the Clapp drawings since I first arrived at Pitt in the fall of 2014. Over the last year or so I’ve been spending a great deal of time looking at them in preparation for an undergraduate museum studies seminar that I am currently teaching in which students engage in hands-on, object-based study of these drawings in preparation for their exhibition next fall. This is part of the revised exhibition seminar schedule, which now spans two semesters and allows us to undertake more challenging topics that require prolonged research (This is Not Ideal was the first manifestation of this new approach and shows the wisdom of the extended production schedule). 

With my class, I’m trying to answer a few very basic questions: who made these drawings? When? Where? Why were they brought together into a large, leather-bound volume? Was there a logic to the way that the drawings were collected and ordered in the volume? 

In the early modern period, it was fairly common to bring disparate drawings by many different artists into a single volume. Giorgio Vasari had a collection of drawings that he described in his Lives of the Artists (and about which Erwin Panofsky has written an important essay). Perhaps the most famous collector of drawings is Padre Sebastiano Resta (1635-1714), whose collection habits have been studied by studied by Genevieve Warwick and others. One thing that distinguishes our album from many of comparable exemplars in European collections is that our album has been thoroughly deconstructed. Every page was removed from the volume so that we now have nothing but an empty leather binding. Additionally, most of the drawings have been cut off the pages to which they were pasted, sometimes in acts of aesthetic violence that border on vandalism – you can see in figure 1 how someone has used a razorblade to slice through the thick pages of the album to which it had been affixed. This makes the drawings incredibly fragile; they can easily be torn and damaged. However, if we are extremely careful to ensure the safety of the drawings, we can use a number of non-invasive techniques to come to a better understanding of the drawings in order to reveal when and where they were made.

Pre-modern paper is much robust than the sort of paper we are used to using in everyday life around the university. Paper was made from linen rags which were soaked in an acid bath (often human urine) and then beaten into a pulp. That pulp was laid onto a wire mesh that gave the paper its shape and size. In the fourteenth or fifteenth century, Italian papermakers began affixing to this mesh small emblems crafted out of extremely fine wire thread; each papermaker developed his own emblem which was then “impressed” into paper and became visible only when examined against backlight (figure 2). Watermarks can help us determine when and where paper was made and thereby offer us a firm “post quem” (or “date after which”) for the drawings in our collection. Since our drawings have been removed from their backing album pages, it is quite easy to inspect for watermarks by laying the drawings on a light table (figure 3). It should be remembered that watermarks were quite small and isolated in one corner of a large, royal sheet of paper, meaning that if the sheet were cut up into, say, four or five sheets around 8.5x11 inches only one of those sheets would bear the watermark. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is rare to have a watermark in a drawing, but they are scarce enough that scholars get excited when they see one. A surprising number of our drawings have visible watermarks. In the fall of 2018 Randy Coleman, a specialist in early modern drawings from the University of Notre Dame, came to Pitt to help us work through the collection and determine a course of action for the exhibition (figure 4). He noted that our collection had a higher concentration of watermarks than he’d ever seen. My hope is that my students will be able to use the watermarks to help us determine when and where the drawings were made. Our working hypothesis is that the drawings are mainly Florentine of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We’ll see if the material evidence bears that out. 

However, the course also tackles the much broader and more fundamental question: How do art historians undertake “object-based research”? Because the exhibition will be finalized by students in the fall of 2019, our goal is to leave them with an abundance of object-based research that will allow them to put together a show that reveals interesting things about the Clapp drawings, their history in the UAG, and how they fit into the broader history of collecting in Pittsburgh, among other things. This means asking the obvious questions of “who?” and “when?” but it also means probing more about the collection as a whole. What is the overall quality of the collection? What about its condition? Are there any parts of this collection that cannot be safely displayed? We also want to ask some other, less traditional questions, like: how do the constraints imposed on us by studying the Clapp drawings seemingly limit the sort of questions we might ask and are there any ways we can work against those constraints? Whose voices/bodies/experiences are elided when we study such a collection of old master drawings and are there any ways to compensate for those gaps/silences while still respecting our objects of study? Are there any works within the Clapp collection that might help us illuminate those gaps? Are there other resources in the UAG and ULS collections that can do some of that work for us? 

Our initial findings suggest that the collection is extremely uneven in its quality. Certain works, like this profile head of a man wearing a turban (figure 5) are extremely refined and delicate in their execution. The cross-hatching used to demarcate the contour of the figure marks this as one of the oldest drawings in the collection and makes it perhaps my personal favorite. Another work of extremely high quality is this God the Father from a large composition probably showing the Coronation of the Virgin executed on paper that has been prepared with a blue ground, which gives the white highlight extra pop against the background (figure 6). Many of the drawings are much more pedestrian in their execution. However, our goal is not to simply exhibit the “fine” drawings but rather to exhibition the knowledge that we have produced by engaging in object-based research. Thus, over the course of the semester we will be discovering ways to group the drawings, both fine and pedestrian exemplars, in ways that reveal something fundamental about the practice of drawing in early modern art, the history of collecting drawings, and the history of the UAG. I honestly do not know exactly what we’ll discover, but that is the joy of engaging in object-based research with our students! Stay tuned for more. 

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