Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

November 2005
Online exhibition presenting the sketchbooks of seventeen American artists

Sketchbooks in the Archives of American Art form a vast repository of ideas, perceptions, inspirational imagery, and graphic experiments. As personal records they afford an intimate glimpse of an artist’s visual thinking and reveal aspects of their creative process.

Sketchbooks are as varied as the artists who keep them. Social realist painter Reginald Marsh cut and bound scraps of paper to fit the size of his coat pocket. Avant-garde advocate John Graham snatched moments in a busy career to doodle in a leather-bound diary. Albert Kahn copied architectural details and patterns for future projects, and Oscar Bluemner kept painting diaries with copious notes on his color theories.

This selection of sketchbooks demonstrates the broad range of material available for research at the Archives of American Art from academic notebooks with anatomical studies to illustrated journals, ranging in date from the 1840s to the 1970s.

Funding for Visual Thinking: Curator’s Choice was provided by the Smithsonian Institution’s Women’s Committee.

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Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

Worthington Whittredge sketchbook of a trip down the Rhine River

Worthington Whittredge sketchbook of a trip down the Rhine River, 1849

Creator: Worthington Whittredge

One of the earliest sketchbooks in the Archives of American Art is by Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910) from his trip on the Rhine in 1849. Whittredge, a Cincinnati landscape painter, was traveling by boat to the Düsseldorf Academy, where he would begin his formal art training. Each day he surveyed his surroundings for potential subjects. Cologne and Bonn did not interest him, but Drachenfels appealed to his romantic sensibilities. In his autobiography he wrote:
My first landing was Drachenfels. Guide-book in hand and constantly watching for the 'castle crag of Drachenfels,'...I got off the boat as soon as possible and walked back and ascended the peak where I expected to meet the 'peasant girls with deep blue eyes' which Byron had intimated were there to be found.
Although the pleasant girls left something to be desired, the landscape appealed to him:
...as the sun was rising over the 'Seven Hills' I looked out my window with the Rhine at my back, and saw a picture. It was but a moment, but I made some memoranda, and in the following winter painted a large picture of this subject for my Cincinnati friend, Mr. William Groesbeck.*
Whittredge's sketchbook includes his "memoranda" of the Seven Hills and Drachenfels, as well as views of St. Boar, Rheinfels, Nonnenwerth, and other points of interest along the river. They are quick, lively sketches that outline the features of the landscapes with panoramas that span two pages. Whittredge's sketchbook is typical for a nineteenth-century American artist who studied abroad. It served as a repository of ideas, a place to develop his powers of observation, and a graphic memento of his grand tour.
* John I. H. Baur, ed., The Autobiography of Worthington Whittredge 1820-1910 (New York: Arno Press, 1969), p. 20.

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Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

Palmer Hayden Sketchbook with Studies of Sailboats in France

Palmer Hayden Sketchbook with Studies of Sailboats in France, ca. 1929

Creator: Palmer C. Hayden

In 1926 Palmer Hayden (1890-1973) won first prize from the Harmon Foundation for his painting of a Maine seascape. An art patron who had urged him to enter the competition gave him $3,000 to continue his studies abroad. This initial support got Hayden to France. He lived in Brittany and Paris from 1927 to 1932. Twelve sketchbooks from this period are among his papers. They contain studies of sailboats at Port Louis, Concarneau, and St. Cloud, as well as several drawings of Hayden dancing, drinking, and enjoying Parisian society.

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Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

Sketchbook

Sketchbook, ca. 1881

Creator: Willard Leroy Metcalf

This sketchbook from Willard Metcalf's (1858-1925) student years at the School of the Museum of the Fine Arts in Boston, which he attended from 1876 to 1879, provides a graphic record of his developing technique. In his pencil sketch of a shaded stone wall and open pasture gate, his frame-within-a-frame composition heightens the picturesque point of view.

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Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

Sketchbook

Sketchbook, ca. 1960

Creator: David Park

The sketchbooks of David Park (1911-1960) show the liberating influence of Abstract Expressionism on figurative painting. Park's bold, fluid brush strokes block out shapes in bright light and deep shadow. Park taught life drawing classes at the California School of Fine Arts and later at the University of California at Berkeley. He also organized life drawing sessions in the 1950s with Elmer Bischoff, William Brown, Paul Wonner, Richard Diebenkorn, and other Bay Area artists.* Park's sketchbooks are possibly a record of these group sessions and his personal explorations toward a new figurative style. * Paul Mills, "David Park and the New Figurative Painting" (Masters Thesis, University of California at Berkeley, June 1962 version, pp. 76-77). David Park Papers, Archives of American Art, microfilm roll 849, frames 838-839.

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Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

Fairfield Porter sketchbook

Fairfield Porter sketchbook, ca. 1950

Creator: Fairfield Porter

Fairfield Porter (preferred a 7 ½" x 9 ½" blank composition book for his sketches. There are seventeen of these books among his papers. Few are dated. This sketchbook ca. 1940 includes the familiar themes of his paintings-city and country landscapes, seascapes, and figure studies, but there are also details-the particularities of a seashell, a seagull in flight, and the swing of a tennis player. In an interview with Paul Cummings for the Archives of American Art in 1968, Porter explains how he used his drawings: "I draw but they're to be for my own use for painting….I think some day I might make a painting of this, or I already have the painting in mind when I make drawings. Usually what I'm thinking of is a painting eventually."

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Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

Oscar Bluemner painting diary

Oscar Bluemner painting diary, 1911 June 12 - 1912 Jan. 30

Creator: Oscar Bluemner

Oscar Bluemner's (1867-1938) art evolved directly from his painting diaries, which he kept from 1911 to 1936. Bluemner, who was trained in Germany as an architect, had an architect's penchant for planning. On his walking tours of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, with his painting diary in hand, he made rough outlines of landscapes and plotted complex color arrangements. Each sketch from nature was Bluemner's blueprint of light, line, mass, shadow, and color. Later he embellished his books with additional studies and made extensive notes on his theories and observations. His diaries are evidence of his all-consuming commitment to aesthetic exploration. "One rule," wrote Bluemner, "draw and paint, equally, constantly, separately, thinking, feeling."

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Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

Sketchbook

Sketchbook, ca. 1859

Creator: Walter Shirlaw

A highly regarded teacher, Walter Shirlaw (1838-1909) was an instructor at the Chicago Academy of Design (now the Art Institute of Chicago) and at the Art Students League of New York. He also served as the first President of the Society of American Artists and was a member of the Society of Mural Painters, the New York Etching Club, and the American Water Color Society. Several of Shirlaw's sketchbooks came to the Archives among the papers of Dorothea Dreier. Both Dorothea and her sister, Katherine S. Dreier, studied painting at the Art Students League with Shirlaw. This sketchbook, ca. 1895, contains what appear to be studies for murals or stained glass, as well as sketches of landscapes.

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Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

Harry Bouras sketchbook

Harry Bouras sketchbook, 1986-1987

Creator: Harry Bouras

For twenty-five years, Harry Bouras (1931-1990) hosted a weekly radio program on art criticism, “Art and Artists” (originally called “Critic’s Choice"), on WFMT in Chicago. He was also artist-in-residence at the University of Chicago from 1962 to 1964, and at Northwestern University from 1965 to 1967 and taught at Columbia College in Chicago from 1964 until 1989. His papers include 38 notebook/sketchbooks that he kept from 1957 to1987. In his sketchbooks he keep notes on meetings, personal observations, lists, addresses, phone numbers, as well as drawings of ideas or works in progress. Bouras was an avid pen collector and his many sketches graphically articulate his passion for pen and ink.

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Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

Sketchbook

Sketchbook, ca. 1950

Creator: Elmer Nelson Bischoff

In the 1950s, painter and educator Elmer Bischoff (1916-1991) was one of the leading artists of the Bay Area figurative movement. In this sketchbook, Bischoff combined the bold gestures of Abstract Expressionism with his figure studies to create psychologically weighty compositions.

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Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

Sketchbook

Sketchbook, ca. 1950

Creator: Isabel Bishop

Isabel Bishop (1902-1988) found inspiration and an endless source of subject matter in everyday urban life. Her papers include eight spiral-bound sketchbooks small enough to be held in the hand. In this sketchbook Bishop's employs a variety of expressive lines -- from spontaneous scribbles to deliberate hatching -- to seize the human spirit.

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Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

Sketchbook No. 27

Sketchbook No. 27, 14 July 1942-2 Nov 1947

Creator: Reginald Marsh

Reginald Marsh (1898-1954) was rarely without a sketchbook. The Archives has microfilmed two hundred and twelve of Marsh's sketchbooks, along with hundreds of individual drawings. Most contain variations on his favorite themes-street scenes in New York City, bather's at Coney Island, and burlesque houses. This sketchbook, or compilation of loose drawings, includes what appear to be Marsh's sketches of completed works of art, with dates from 1942 to 1947, and dimensions, as well as figure studies in pen and ink. There are also Marsh's anatomical studies drawn from three published sources: Arthur Thomson's A handbook of anatomy for art students; George B. Bridgeman's, Constructive anatomy; and Johannes Sobotta's Atlas of human anatomy. In 1945, Marsh wrote his own book on the subject: Anotomy for Artists (New York: American Artists group).

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Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

James Penney's New York Sketchbook

James Penney's New York Sketchbook, 1932

Creator: James Penney

James Penney (1910-1982), a longtime teacher of painting at Hamilton College, gave the Archives an extensive series of sketchbooks that chronicle his career from his student days at the University of Kansas, from 1925 to 1929, through some twenty years as a painter in New York. Penney sketched incessantly, on subways, at construction sites, and at political rallies. In the 1930s, he worked on WPA murals under Moses Soyer's direction.

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Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

William Michael Harnett sketchbook

William Michael Harnett sketchbook, 1870

Creator: William Michael Harnett

William Harnett (1848-1892), best known for his meticulously rendered trompe l'oeil paintings, began his artistic career as an engraver of steel, copper, wood, and later silver. In the early 1870s he was employed at Wood & Hughes and Tiffany & Company in New York. His sketchbook from this period reveals his propensity for precision in his sketches of decorative patterns for silver flatware.

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Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

Travel diary

Travel diary, Aug. 29 through Sept. 27, 1891

Creator: Robert Henri

Robert Henri (1865-1929) was best known as an inspirational teacher and a leader in the movement against academic art. In this diary, he describes his visit to Venice in September 1891, when he was a student in Paris. "Over to Sotto Marino-in a sail boat for a sou-a peculiar strip of town on a narrower strip of land than Croggia. The houses all stand alone, no party walls, are high, and their irregularity of tops and general independence of each other presents an odd character. A people wonderfully picturesque bright colored - more ancient in costume than their neighbors, barefooted & much display of legs-and almost nakedness among some children. All work out doors-every step presents a new picture. Everybody is preparing corn to dry in the sun or tying onions up in bunches principally women & children doing this. It's a place to make an artist to wild over color and character."

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Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

Harrison Cady sketchbook

Harrison Cady sketchbook, ca. 1943

Creator: Harrison Cady

Illustrator and painter W. Harrison Cady (1877-d.) was known for charming illustrations of Thornton W. Burgess's children's stories, particularly The Adventures of Peter Cottontail. For seven decades Cady's illustrations appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and other publications. Beginning in 1896, he spent his summers in the seaside village of Rockport, Massachusetts. This sketchbook, dated 1943, includes his picturesque scenes of Rockport, as well as several amusing sketches of artists painting en plein air. In 1921, Cady helped found the Rockport Art Association to support local artists.

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Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

Sketchbook

Sketchbook, ca. 1884

Creator: John White Alexander

John White Alexander's (1856-1915) sketchbook is devoted to value studies of single figures. On each page he experimented with the arrangement of shapes and patterns of light and shadow in shallow space. His sitters are engaged in quiet, composed, interior activities, much in the way that Alexander withdrew into the private world of his sketchbook to meditate on the formal elements of light and composition.

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Sketchbooks: Curators' Choice

Lena Gurr sketchbook No. 7

Lena Gurr sketchbook No. 7, 1930

Creator: Lena Gurr

While this sketchbook from the early 1930s mostly contains nude figure studies that Lena Gurr (1897-1992) sketched in Moses Soyer's studio, there are a series of more concentrated studies for a painting of a seamstress. Gurr's rendering of the domestic interior with the sewing machine, table, shears, and basket, as well as her notes on the direction and intensity of the light, conveys the sitter's concentration on the work at hand.

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