Drawn to Collecting

Make text smaller Make text larger

The Thaw Collection of drawings is celebrated with a new show at The Morgan


  • Francisco de Goya (1746–1828), "Leave it all to Providence (Dejalo todo a la probidencia)," 1816-20, black ink and gray wash, Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum. Photo: Steven H. Crossot

  • Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), "The Bulwark De Rose and the Windmill De Smeerpot, Amsterdam," ca. 1649-52, pen and brown ink and wash, Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum. Photo: Steven H. Crossot

  • Eugene V. Thaw (left) with Morgan Director Colin B. Bailey in 2016. Photo: Graham S. Haber

  • Euge`ne Delacroix (1798–1863), "Moroccans Outside the Walls of Tangier," watercolor and opaque white watercolor over graphite on wove paper, Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum. Photo: Steven H. Crossot

  • Odilon Redon (1840–1916), "The Fool (or Intuition)," 1877, charcoal with black chalk and fixative on light brown paper, Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum. Photo: Graham S. Haber

  • Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), "Untitled [Drawing for P.G.]," ca. 1943, pen and black ink and wash, green ink wash, red colored pencil, and orange watercolor pencil © 2017 The Pollock- Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

  • J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851), "The Pass of St. Gotthard, near Faido," 1843, watercolor over graphite, Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum. Photo: Steven H. Crossot

  • Edgar Degas (1834 - 1917), "Seated Dancer," 1871-72, oil paint over graphite on pink paper, Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum. Photo: Steven H. Crossot

Eugene Thaw is a native New Yorker who had a passion for collecting old master and modern drawings. This year, he completed a promised gift of his entire collection to The Morgan Library & Museum, which is celebrating his generosity — and 90th birthday — with a show of some 150 items out of a total 450 acquired over the course of more than 60 years.

The exhibit is a showcase for Thaw’s connoisseurship, with works spanning six centuries — from the Renaissance to the 20th century, from Mantegna to Diebenkorn. It’s a primer in the history of draftsmanship, but in the end, a testament to the taste of the collector, who chose works by artists that appealed to him.

As Jennifer Tonkovich, the museum’s Eugene and Clare Thaw Curator of Drawings and Prints, writes in the exhibit catalog: “Thaw sought to build groups of drawings by favorite artists, collecting in depth and capturing a range of an artist’s draftsmanship rather than seeking comprehensive coverage in any one school or century.”

In an interview, she added, “Gene was a dealer, so he had all these opportunities. He was really interested in moments of innovation and in artists who were really exceptional at their craft and also with their content.” He eschewed a collection of one-onlys for one replete with multiple works by the masters — Rembrandt (10), Goya (8), Delacroix (10), Daumier (5), Degas (14), Cézanne (9), Redon (11) and more.

Born in Washington Heights in 1927, Thaw took classes at The Art Students League on Saturdays when he was a teenager, a formative experience that sparked his interest in drawings. At 15, he entered St. John’s College in Annapolis, where proximity to the National Gallery and The Phillips Collection in Washington fueled his interest in art, artists and the creative process.

He decided to pursue a career in fine art after enrolling in a master’s degree program in art history in 1947 at Columbia, where he studied with the inspirational Meyer Schapiro. But he shied away from an academic career, opting instead to become a dealer and collector. As Tonkovich said, “He was really absolutely drawn to being in a position where he was handling works of art and working with artists.” By his own account: “I can’t create the objects I crave to look at, so I collect them.”

In 1950, when he was only 23, he borrowed $4,000 from his father and opened The New Book Store and Gallery with a college pal above the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street. After his partner left a few years later, he dropped the bookstore and focus on contemporary abstract art and began collecting and dealing modern and old master works.

In 1954, he moved his wares uptown to a tony location on Madison Avenue, between 57th and 58th streets, and with the encouragement of his assistant and wife, Clare Eddy, began to collect for himself. He subsequently set up shop at various venues on the Upper East Side, where he privately dealt to leading museums and collectors.

It was Clare who suggested that Eugene collaborate with The Morgan, which had a world-class drawing collection started by Pierpont Morgan in 1909, but relatively few works after 1800. The Thaws made their first gift in 1968 and, in 1975, promised the whole cache, a commitment fully realized earlier this year after decades of regular donations and shows celebrating the acquisitions.

The current exhibit is an embarrassment of riches, beginning with Mantegna’s “Three Standing Saints” (ca. 1450-55), studies of the apostle St. Andrew or St. Philip with a book and a cross. Per the curator: “Drawings by Mantegna are so rare that the chance to get to see him making a series of studies is something that is pretty exceptional. It’s a great early example of a study sheet.”

Thaw’s works help fill gaps in The Morgan’s collection. Rembrandt’s “The Bulwark De Rose and the Windmill De Smeerpot, Amsterdam” (ca. 1649-52) is an elevated view of a rope factory (left) and back of a windmill (right). “It is truly one of the greatest Rembrandt landscape drawings from his walks around Amsterdam. We have a collection that is famous for the Rembrandt drawings, but we didn’t have a great landscape,” Tonkovitch said.

The show also offers a Turner, “The Pass of St. Gotthard, near Faido” (1843), that critic John Ruskin deemed “the greatest work he produced in the last period of his art.” Sketched on a tour of the Swiss Alps in 1842, the finished watercolor over graphite depicts winter ice melting and making waves in the Ticino River. There’s a blowup photo of the work in the hallway separating the two exhibit galleries.

“You can actually see in the blowup where Turner used his thumb to smudge some blue watercolor,” Tonkovich said. “He had this really active way of working the sheet—he’s scraping it, he’s smudging it. You just have this incredible production that captures the sublime, which is so emblematic of the Romantic moment.”

Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters