Collecting Works on Paper

By Morgan Rigaud

As a general collecting category, Works on Paper includes drawings in ink, charcoal, graphite and other materials, not excluding paintings in pastel and watercolor or mixed media collage. 


First, there is the individual aesthetic experience – or how a particular piece elicits an emotional response.  A judgement of visual interest.  This can be wildly subjective, often irrational, and always fascinating.  As most works on paper are smaller in scale, they can be enjoyed by the viewer as a more intimate experience where they are explored up-close and sometimes best with magnification that emphasizes tiny, intricate detail that adds to visual interest.

Second, buying for an art historical connection is a common motivation for collecting works on paper.  The physical properties of paper - its light weight and malleability - lent to the artist a substrate on which to record information quickly and easily.  Often, works on paper possess what we appraisers refer to as documentary value - the potential for recording significant events.  Most recently, I had the opportunity to work with a collector of significant 20th century photography.  Among his large collection of several thousand photographs, he owned the original prints of the very first aerial photographs in history.  They were snapped by Orville Wright, and they document a turning point in the history of transportation and commerce.  

While these images did not directly result in the production of further developed work, we know that many great painters begin their oil paintings with studies and sketches.  An artist's sketchbook can be a trove of concepts that may or may not materialize in any other medium, but if these recorded concepts become paintings or sculptures, the sketches have a relationship to the finalized piece.  Drawings may narrate a story or provide insight to the artist's process.  When a clear relationship is established between a drawing and a painting, these studies and sketches also aid in authenticating other works by the same artist.  Da Vinci's notebooks are excellent resources for understanding not only the process and ideation for his fine art, but his renderings of various contraptions including mechanical lions and armadas used in naval battle give us a taste of Renaissance science, engineering and the high technology of his time.  The sketches in Da Vinci's notebooks are commonly cited in matters of authenticity, as so many of them bear stylistic similarities and close thematic relationships to his oil paintings.

Few connoisseurs of works on paper existed in America before the second world war.  A circle of collectors around the Fogg and the Frick existed, but largely drawings in particular did not make up a thriving collecting class in America until the mid-20th century. 

Pierre-Auguste Renoir ,  Mademoiselle Jeanne Samary , painting in pastel, 27 7/16 x 18 3/4 in. permanent collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mademoiselle Jeanne Samary, painting in pastel, 27 7/16 x 18 3/4 in. permanent collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum.

As the art historical connection and the individual aesthetic interest have, so far, been discussed independently, its worthwhile to note the instances where collectors have the opportunity to acquire a drawing, watercolor, or painting in pastel with historical significance reinforcing visual appeal.  An excellent example is found in the Cincinnati Art Museum's painting in pastel portrait of Mlle Jeanne Samary by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  Mademoiselle Samary was a French actress, a model for Renoir, and some sources cite her as a romantic interest of the artist.  In her pastel portrait from the museum's collection, Renoir highlights her femininity with a light color palette and airy, delicate yet deliberate marks.  She is a dreamy, romantic beauty.  Renoir so carefully constructed her eyes so that you look into them hoping to meet eyes with her, only to discover that her focus lies elsewhere.  

This visual interest created by Renoir's clever composition is coupled with the art historical significance of his model.  Mademoiselle Samary appears in Renoir's internationally-celebrated oil paintings bearing a similar gaze. Blue-chip institutions and auction houses feature individual and group portraits that include Mademoiselle Samary. The Musée d'Orsay houses Renoir's 1876 painting 'The Swing', where Samary appears as the sole female in a multi-figure composition characteristically Renoir.  Christie's sold a painting in pastel of Mademoiselle Samary with an exposed breast, similar in size and composition to the Cincinnati Art Museum's pastel portrait of Samary, for more than $1.1M in 2011.  Our museum’s drawing of Samary is a case for the fascinating connections that can be studied and celebrated through original drawings and pastels.

The marriage of visual interest and historical depth can be collected With some careful selection, you can add to your private collection the works of masters that are beautiful, intellectually stimulating, and historically significant.