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Harvard Art Museums Spotlight: French Drawings Collection

By Ha D.H. Le, Crimson Staff Writer

The red chalk strokes project off the yellowed paper. Two female nudes sit with fabric draped over their legs. Inside a gallery filled with paintings by artists like Van Gogh and Picasso, the piece—the sole chalk work in the room—is even more striking. It is Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Two Nude Women, Study for the ‘Great Bathers,’” one of many French drawings in the Harvard Art Museums collection.

“This is a study for a large painting in Philadelphia, one of Renoir’s most famous works because it was his grand statement about the Western tradition,” Elizabeth Rudy, assistant curator of European paintings, says. She goes on to explain how “Great Bathers” marks Renoir’s turn to classicism and how this makes the sketch study even more significant. “You might argue you see more into the artist’s process in this working drawing than you might see right away in the painting,” she says.

Rudy’s sentiments reflect the newly-renovated Harvard Art Museums’ mission to act as a laboratory for learning. In line with this undertaking, the museum’s galleries focus on historical and thematic elements rather than national boundaries or media. “We’ve tried real collaboration, and it’s about creating a space for real debates,” chief curator Deborah Martin Kao said during the press preview. For drawings like Renoir’s “Study for the ‘Great Bathers,’” this emphasis on fostering debate manifests itself in the works being displayed in the same room as finished paintings, a design unlike that found in most museums. “Each gallery has a wall dedicated to works on paper,” Rudy says. “It allows the visitor to get a fuller sense of artistic production in each of these eras.”

Among the featured drawings is the Museums’ collection of 18th- and 19th-century French works, which boasts artists like Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and Jacques-Louis David. Mostly from the Winthrop and Sachs collections, the drawings showcase the artists’ range and development. But these valuable drawings are also fragile, requiring care and creativity to display in a way that does them justice. “Works on paper have to be kept on lower light so they do not become overexposed,” Rudy says. According to Rudy, due to conservation requirements, the Museums can only show the drawings on rotation, switching out drawings every four to six months.

Nevertheless, the drawings’ contribution to the Museums is worth the effort required to exhibit them. “There’s a hierarchy that privileges more permanent art like paintings or sculptures over more temporal things like drawings and prints,” Rudy says. “We hope our new installations will shake people’s expectations.” As the Harvard Art Museums ushers in a new era, its collection of drawings is also poised to make waves. Beyond the artistic merit of these drawings, their display reflects the Museums’ commitment to breaking boundaries.

––Staff writer Ha D.H. Le can be reached at

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