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Transatlantic Tales: Cultural Exchange Brings Treasures to Cleveland

By Emily J. Peters, Curator of Prints and Drawings

The current exhibition Tales of the City: Drawing in the Netherlands from Bosch to Bruegel, on view through January 8, 2023, in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Exhibition Gallery, is a celebration of astounding ingenuity and remarkable collaboration. The exhibition presents 101 drawings made in the Low Countries (present-day Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) in the 16th century, a period of rapid urbanization and mercantile expansion and of the emergence of the middle class as patrons of the arts. During a century that saw the start of the Protestant Reformation and the beginning of the Eighty Years War, artists in these mercantile cities created innovative works that focused on storytelling, morality, and the everyday lives of inhabitants.

Ninety-one of the 101 drawings on view are loaned from one of the world’s finest collections of this material, the Albertina Museum in Vienna. The collaboration between the CMA and the Albertina began in 2018, when the Austrian museum requested to borrow two of the CMA’s paintings by Claude Monet (The Red Kerchief and Gardener’s House at Antibes) for a major exhibition in Vienna. In exchange, the CMA was invited to organize an exhibition from the Albertina’s vast (over one million works) graphic arts collection for an exhibition in Cleveland.

The loan of 91 works of art across the Atlantic by one institution is a major moment, but even more so when the objects are all light-sensitive works that are only rarely exhibited, even at their home institution. To preserve the media and paper of Renaissance drawings, institutions generally only exhibit individual works for a few months once every 10 or so years. Thus, even if you were to travel to Vienna, you might not see these works on view (except next spring, when Tales of the City will be shown there). Some drawings in the exhibition are simply so important and rare that they are seldom loaned at all. The Albertina’s Tree Man by the enigmatic Hieronymus Bosch is one of just around 20 drawings by the artist in the world. It has not traveled to the United States in recent memory (fig. 1).

Figure 1. The Tree Man, c. 1500–1510. Hieronymus Bosch (Netherlandish, 1440–1516). Pen and light- and dark-brown inks on paper; 27.7 x 21.1 cm. Albertina, Vienna, inv. 7876. © The Albertina Museum, Vienna

The process of packing, shipping, unpacking, inspecting, and installing 91 precious drawings is a meticulous and perfectly coordinated one. Our partners at the Albertina packed each drawing in custom-built crates. They divided the shipment into two parts, to be sent on airplanes on two different days, separating the rarest and most important drawings in the eventuality of loss. Did you know that works of art travel on commercial airlines? The Albertina assigned two couriers (transport specialists), both curators at the museum, to travel with the drawings. Once here at the museum, the crates were carefully unpacked by our collections management and conservation staff and inspected one by one for any condition changes that may have occurred in transit (fig. 2). Over the course of four days, our art handlers installed each work according to the plan I devised alongside our design team, then carefully lit the space at low light levels to preserve the drawings’ media (fig. 3). (Be sure to let your eyes adjust when you enter the space!) This will all recur in reverse when the drawings return to Vienna in January.

Figure 2. CMA conservator Moyna Stanton, couriers from the Albertina, and CMA curator Emily J. Peters inspect drawings after unpacking
Figure 3. CMA art handlers Andrew Robison and Jason Willis install two large drawings

Like many European collections, the origin of the Albertina’s holdings of Renaissance drawings dates back several hundred years. The collection was begun by Prince Albert Casimir of Saxony, Duke of Teschen (1738–1822), who married into the Habsburg imperial family and became Governor of the Austrian Netherlands along with his wife, Marie Christina, in 1781 (fig. 4). Albert started his collection by buying directly from the great connoisseurs in the Netherlands. Today, the Albertina Museum is in the duke’s former palace in Vienna; its building and contents became nationalized to the Austrian state in the 1920s (fig. 5).

Figure 4. A portrait of Prince Albert Casimir of Saxony, Duke of Teschen. Oil on canvas; 74 x 58 cm. Bratislava City Gallery, inv. A 666. Photo via Wikipedia
Figure 5. The Albertina Museum, Vienna. Photo via

In the period in which the duke formed his collection, drawings and prints were kept unframed and pasted into large folios, or albums, as opposed to being framed and hung on the wall. The duke employed curators and technicians to study and house his vast collection. When you visit the exhibition, you will see the result of this labor. Most of the drawings have delicate lines made with pen and watercolor framing the sheets (fig. 6). These framing lines are not part of the original drawing but were added by the collection’s early curators after the drawing was pasted to the album sheet. Therefore, when you see these lines in the exhibition, you are seeing the duke’s original album sheets.

Figure 6. The drawing sheet ends, and the album sheet begins, at the dark pen line. The inscription on this album sheet below Hieronymus Bosch’s Tree Man indicates that the drawing was once thought to be by the hand of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Tree Man (detail), c. 1500–1510. Hieronymus Bosch (Netherlandish, 1440–1516). Pen and light- and dark-brown inks on paper; 27.7 x 21.1 cm. Albertina, Vienna, inv. 7876. © The Albertina Museum, Vienna

You might also see names inscribed in graphite or with other media below a work of art across the framing lines (see fig. 6). These are not, in fact, the artist’s signature. With some exceptions, artists only occasionally signed their works in the period, and besides, most of these inscriptions appear on the album sheets, not the drawings themselves. Instead, these inscriptions are attributions given by one of the collection’s curators many years ago. Sometimes, the attributions still accord with scholarly consensus today. In other cases, however, we have learned more about the drawing and its history, pointing us toward a new attribution.

In addition to seeing the album sheets, you will also see colored mats and beautiful wood frames, each made to fit the individual work (fig. 7). These are recent additions, added by technical staff at the Albertina, to enhance the viewing experience of each drawing. In general, museums do not store drawings in frames, but rather unframed within solander boxes. Every time a drawing goes on view, it must be framed anew. This is one aspect of exhibiting works on paper that requires much advanced planning and preparation!

Figure 7. A gallery view shows the diversity of colored mats and frames used in the exhibition

Exhibitions of this type also present the opportunity to gather enthusiasts and experts together to view the works, consider new questions, and resolve old debates. On November 3 and 4, 2022, 14 scholars traveled to Cleveland from throughout Europe and the United States to present recent research on Netherlandish drawings. A lively, in-gallery discussion resulted in a possible new attribution for a drawing by a previously unresolved artist. A keynote delivered by Stijn Alsteens, who is the international head of Old Master drawings at Christie’s, presented expansive information about the origins of Netherlandish collections and the escalating market for Renaissance drawings today. The symposium speakers presented information on such topics as the use of color in Renaissance drawings and the ways that drawings were used to help middle-class buyers choose a “mix-and-match” selection of images for their homes.

Tales of the City is not only a triumph of careful logistics and planning but also of the international scholarly and cultural exchange that makes our museum special. You could be the only one at your Thanksgiving table to say you’ve seen Bosch’s Tree Man in person. Don’t miss the chance!



Art from another angle: Stories from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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