Tales of the City: Drawing in the Netherlands from Bosch to Bruegel (working title) is a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition featuring rarely seen drawings from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, one of Europe’s oldest and finest collections. The Northern Renaissance transformed daily life in the 1500s in the Netherlands (an area today encompassing Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), brought about by the Protestant Reformation, wide-scale urbanization, and the start of the Eighty Years’ War. Partially as a result of these changes, art patronage in the Netherlands shifted from that of the church and nobility to the rising middle class. Central to the blossoming of the arts was the skyrocketing wealth centered in the region’s merchant cities—in particular, Antwerp, which was the primary depot for luxury goods in the North and for overland and seafaring trade as far as Asia.
With their various functions and relationships to other media and projects, drawings provide fascinating insight into the Netherlandish city as a place of artistic collaboration and patronage. Artists made drawings to prepare for large commissions, to transfer designs to other media, and to plan civic events; many works in the exhibition were created in conjunction with the Netherlands’ flourishing industries in stained glass, tapestries, and printmaking. Drawings were also increasingly made as autonomous works of art. A selection of more than 80 drawings explores an array of refined techniques, including lavishly colored drawings and luxury objects drawn with ink on parchment, with subjects ranging from hell scenes to mythological dramas. Two stars of the exhibition are Hieronymus Bosch’s Tree-Man, one of the most idiosyncratic drawings of the era, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Sloth (Seven Deadly Sins), an essay on contemporary civic morality. Among several designs for majestic stained glass windows is a rare cartoon (full-scale drawing) measuring almost five feet tall by Antwerp artist Jan de Beer. Other notable works—seldom seen outside Europe—include portrait drawings in colored chalks by Hendrick Goltzius and a technically sophisticated pen drawing that imitates engraving by his stepson, Jacob Matham.
The Albertina Museum is among the world’s most superb repositories of Northern Renaissance drawings. Combined with choice examples from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s holdings, the exhibition introduces audiences to the highly engaging works of this era while exploring issues that remain relevant today, such as communal identity and expression, religious conflict and freedom, and the ethics and excesses of wealth.
The exhibition is co-curated by Emily Peters (Curator of Prints and Drawings, Cleveland Museum of Art) and Laura Ritter (Curator of French Art, Albertina). It will be accompanied by a major catalogue including catalogue entries and several essays by leading scholars.