Drawing a Crowd

The Art Institute’s astounding collection of prints and drawings deserves a closer look.

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In 1922, a geologist and paleontologist from Danville named William Gurley commemorated his late mother with a major gift to the Art Institute of Chicago—about 4,000 drawings from his private collection; Gurley, the director of the Illinois State Museum, a natural history museum in Springfield, loved European art but could afford only prints when he began collecting. When he died, in 1943, his wife gave the rest of his stash, some 2,000 more pieces, to the museum, which found it difficult to assess immediately due to its sheer volume. It wasn’t until the 1980s that curators began thoroughly cataloging the donations—and found a rare sketch by Raphael (see number 5 on the following page), one of only a few works by the Renaissance genius then known to exist in the United States.

Just as that masterwork was buried among the Art Institute’s possessions, the Prints and Drawings collection, tucked away on the first floor of the main building, is a hidden gem with about 60,000 prints and another 11,500 drawings. Only a small sample is ever on display at one time in the museum’s general galleries; the rest of the works reside in the collection, where they are available for anyone to view in the Goldman Study Center by appointment. (The collection is open to the public from 1:30 to 4:15 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Make a reservation in advance by calling 312-443-3660; the collection allows only four appointments per day, and visitors must be 18 or older.)

The Art Institute ranks with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as having the most diverse prints-and-drawings collections outside of Europe, where the top museums—notably the Louvre, the Prado, and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence—own most of the world’s best examples of the arts. Albrecht Dürer was one of the first great printmakers, and the Art Institute has a set of his master prints. Produced in 1513 and 1514, three remarkably detailed prints—Knight, Death, and the Devil; St. Jerome in His Study; and Melencolia I—are considered the peak of the German artist’s work. The collection also comprises a wide range of works by Rembrandt, including his late religious prints such as The Supper at Emmaus; The Descent from the Cross; The Entombment; and Presentation at the Temple.  Francisco Goya, the prolific Spanish painter and printmaker, narrowly avoided the Inquisition after making Los Caprichos, a set of 80 engravings, many of which bitterly mocked the church and the monarchy, and satirized the foibles of Spanish society. The Art Institute has a rare set of etchings that predates the first printed edition.

Requesting works to view can be intimidating—after all, where does one start? But curator Suzanne McCullagh recommends that novices relax and take an exploratory approach. “If you don’t have any sense of what you want to see, grab a great name and ask for it—you’ll find that usually we have it,” she says, adding that you can also narrow the field by subject matter or zero in on a particular medium (such as pastel, ink, or charcoal). When asked to pick her favorites, McCullagh chose eight pieces by some of art history’s most impressive names, spanning nearly six centuries.

Eight great works >>