Art comes into a museum's collection in a multitude of ways. Sometimes it is donated or bequeathed, and sometimes it is purchased directly by the institution. The stories behind these acquisitions vary, and they can be full of surprises. Crocker curator William Breazeale, PhD, shares one such story of a drawing currently on view in Drawn to Beauty: Fifteen Years of Acquisitions for the Crocker Art Museum.
Every object in the exhibition Drawn to Beauty has a story. Often it is about the subject, or a technique, or something else, but this one is about the history of Le Soir by Jean-Baptiste Hüet—where it was, when, and why.
Jean-Baptiste Hüet worked in the 18th century as an animal painter. He had wanted to paint mythologies, altarpieces, or allegories, but once he recognized where his real talent lay, he made quite a career with pictures of the hunt, or of animals interacting. San Francisco has one of the paintings that gained him membership in Paris’ Académie Royale: Fox in a Chicken Yard . He was also prized for his designs for decorative arts—tapestries for the royal manufactories at Beauvais and Gobelins, even designs for what we call toile fabric, with figural scenes printed on cotton.
Hüet was an especially talented draftsman, and in his time, his drawings were much sought by collectors. To spread his compositions further, many artists made prints after them. Le Soir was engraved by Gilles Demarteau in 1776, for example, as part of a series of the four Times of Day.
One of the reasons this drawing was desirable for the Crocker is that in 2000, the Crocker had acquired another work by Hüet: Study of a Mound Covered with Grass. As beautiful as it is—it shows Hüet’s facility with red and black chalk in a dramatic way—it is not typical of his work. To show what Hüet was best at, we needed an animal drawing, and a good one.
On a trip to the Salon du dessin in Paris, where over thirty drawings dealers gather every year, I was enchanted by a small drawing hanging a little high on the wall. It was Le Soir. And, of course, I knew the gap we needed to fill in Hüet’s work. When I introduced myself and asked the dealer to take it down so that I could see it better, he said “Crocker Art Museum? Interesting, as this drawing once belonged to a member of the Crocker family.” I was of course intrigued to hear this, but I was focused on other things like quality, how it would fit into the collection, and other such thoughts. After a little time, we agreed that the drawing would be sent to Sacramento on approval.
Upon its arrival, I did what I always do before showing a possible acquisition to my superiors. I conducted a close examination out of the frame, looking at the back, checking condition, and so on. And that is when I found the document that explained everything.
In the mat was a tag from the back of a former frame, showing it had been loaned to an exhibition in 1937 at the San Francisco Museum of Art by William H. Crocker. So, the drawing had once been a mere hundred miles from Sacramento, and now it was back in California after its travels!
William H. Crocker was the son of Charles Crocker and the nephew of the Museum’s founder, E. B. Crocker. His wife, born Ethel Sperry, collected drawings and especially those of the 18th century, buying some of them in Paris around 1910–1920.
The 1937 exhibition mentioned on the tag was a sort of celebration of her collection after her death three years before. It took place at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA). Her husband was an inaugural board member of the institution, so it made sense to have it there. After that show, Mrs. Crocker’s drawings were partly dispersed at auction. I knew of her collection and had seen her name in other museums. She was certainly a cultivated woman, as what I have seen of her collection reflects great knowledge and refined taste.
Now that it is back in California, Crocker visitors can enjoy Hüet’s Le Soir for generations to come. You can explore this well-traveled work in the current exhibition Drawn to Beauty, on view through April 28.