Extravagant Drawings of the Eighteenth Century: From the Collection of the Cooper Union Museum

Extravagant Drawings of the Eighteenth Century: From the Collection of the Cooper Union Museum

Extravagant Drawings of the Eighteenth Century: From the Collection of the Cooper Union Museum

Extravagant Drawings of the Eighteenth Century: From the Collection of the Cooper Union Museum


"What could be more gratifying than to follow the creative impulse of a great artist through drawings?" asked the Comte de Caylus, the enlightened amateur, in a celebrated lecture delivered in 1773 at a meeting of the French Royal Academy. He added that one is much advanced in the knowledge of the arts when one knows how to understand drawings. One is thus able to form one's taste through the study of the procedure which led the artist to his completed work.

By its very nature a drawing is incomplete, hence personal. The world's greatest drawings have been done neither for display, nor as anticipated works of art. They have been by- products in the process of artistic endeavor, created by artists to help in the clarification and formulization of their own problems. From this very fact derives their greatest fascination. Good drawings have an enduring appeal. They possess the virtues of freshness and utter honesty. In them banality and empty cleverness have no place.

Drawings for objects that we interpret as comprising the decorative arts are lesswell known than those by the great painters and sculptors of the past, though study of them can be equally rewarding. Perhaps what antipathy that seems to have existed toward more serious study of the so-called Minor or Applied Arts has been due to the infinite variety, complexity and range in quality found in the objects themselves, and to the relative anonymity of many of their creators. Also, they seem to possess a more obscure, less exciting history than is apt to be the case with the works of the so-called Major Arts.

The great day for the decorative designer was the 18th century, and it is not merely by chance that a goodly portion of the drawings included in this selection is French, for France, from a qualitative point of view, led not only in fashion but also in design. The production of these French artists can be divided roughly into three types. Those like Watteau and Boucher are remembered essentially as figurative artists. They were, nonetheless, equally at home in the realm of pure decoration. Berain and Oppenord are habitually associated with architectural, interior and stage design, though ornamental detail was actually and instinctively their primary concern. Delafosse, Lalonde and Prieur, on the other hand, were ornamental designers in the strict sense of the term, whose drawings were produced solely for the purpose of giving inspiration to less talented artisans, thus enabled, in turn, to adapt them to objects intended for daily use. So it is that ornamental design, often considered as merely the embellishments to Art, plays an important role in the fabric of artistic history and evolution.

Almost nothing is known of the lives and activities of many of these minor ornamental artists. For example, dozens of original drawings and engravings by Lalonde exist, yet we are ignorant of his birth date, as well as of the full span of his activity. Because nothing further is heard of him after 1789, it is presumed that he lost his life for the Royalist cause. As for Babel, we are not even apprized of his full name. Ephemeral as the biographical facts of these artists may be, their merit endures. Their works will forever remain as permanent visual documents in the evolution of taste.

These artists were called upon to design all manner of things, from Royal palaces to layouts for the fabulous supper parties given at Versailles. It is difficult to think that any present-day artist of comparable reputation would not regard as insulting the mere suggestion of so frivolous a task, which, by its very nature, was destined for impermanence.

Credit must be given to the ornamental designers, whose work was widely disseminated through countless engravings, some going into many editions and reprintings. They were, so to speak, the taste-

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