The celebrated scholar, feminist and collector Ann Sutherland Harris discusses how she looks at a drawing, her discoveries and reattributions, and a life of social activism — ahead of the sale of Old Master drawings from her collection in New York
‘I stop and look closely at every drawing I come across if it’s beautiful and new to me,’ explains the art historian, scholar and activist Ann Sutherland Harris when asked about her process of attribution.
‘I want to know who did it, or who is supposed to have executed it,’ she continues. ‘If it’s by an artist whose drawings I know well enough to spot a misattribution and it does not seem to deserve the label, I may make a note and even contact the sale coordinator or the curator.’
At a Christie’s auction in 1977, Harris acquired a small brush drawing then attributed to the circle of Nicolas Poussin (below). Although she describes this as ‘an entirely reasonable guess’, it was clear to her that the drawing was a detailed study by Andrea Sacchi for a painting celebrating the Centenary of the Jesuit Order.
Harris’s publications have become classics in the field — her monograph on Sacchi, for example, remains essential for our knowledge of the great Baroque artist’s life and career. As a collector, her taste for Old Master drawings has developed as an expression of her scholarly interests, which spans groundbreaking research on 17th-century Italian and French artists and pioneering work on women artists. Of particular interest have been artists from the Italian Seicento, including Giacomo Cavedone, Giovanni Francesco Grimaldi, Pier Francesco Mola, Giuseppe Passeri and Pietro Testa, in addition to Sacchi.
Harris has built a collection of Old Master drawings that includes many of her own discoveries and reattributions. Among them are a Francesco Albani, previously sold as by Elisabetta Sirani; a Guillaume Courtois, sold as anonymous; a Pier Francesco Mola, sold as a Pietro Faccini; and a rare drawing by Paulus Potter sold as an anonymous work — a sign of her judgement beyond the field of Italian art.
‘I always check hands — they are so hard to draw well,’ she explains. ‘Also key is knowing the habits of the draughtsmen on which I have spent a lot of time: their preferred mediums, the way they do hatching and contour lines and ink washes; the types of pen, chalk and paper they liked; the physiognomy of their figures; the paintings they made with which the works might be connected, and so on.
‘One friend calls me “La Scrutinatrice” [the examiner] — I take it as a compliment!’
‘All of this feeds into my reactions to a drawing, but the process is not like cataloguing butterflies,’ she adds. ‘Artists’ habits change over time, and first sketches can be very different from careful final studies. I have looked a lot at portrait drawings while working on Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s exceptionally fine examples, and handling the foreshortening of a face seen in three-quarter view is extremely difficult to get right.
‘I look at the eyeballs first: the less able artists don’t place them so that each eye is looking at the same thing — their eyes are slightly askew and the face then has no psychological life. Finally, owning a drawing yourself really trains you to look closely at every other drawing by the same hand. One friend calls me “La Scrutinatrice” [the examiner] — I take it as a compliment!’
On 30 January 2018, Old Master drawings from the collection of Ann Sutherland Harris will be offered in the Old Master & British Drawings sale at Christie’s in New York. The selection is both a reflection of her scholarship and a tribute to her taste and connoisseurship.
The granddaughter of the Swedish Symbolist painter Filip Wahlström (1885-1972), Harris grew up between England and Sweden, and her formative years were spent ‘watching artists at work’. Her passion for drawings is a family affair, and an analytical attention to the artistic process would become a hallmark of her studies.
Her remarkable body of scholarship includes important articles on the drawings of some of 17th-century Italy’s leading artists, from Ludovico to Annibale and Agostino Carracci to Guido Reni, Albani, Sacchi, Mola, Pietro Testa and Bernini, while the revelatory exhibition Women Artists, 1550-1950, co-curated with Linda Nochlin and first held at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, was the first serious exhibition devoted to women artists of the past four centuries.
Her devotion to collecting began when she was a graduate student in London in the 1960s. In 1963 she persuaded her father, the distinguished physicist Sir Gordon Sutherland (1907-1980), to buy two drawings: a large Mola (above), and an exceptional compositional study by Giuseppe Passeri (below). These two drawings were the start of her collection.
Harris’s passion for art history has been allied to an even stronger commitment to women’s equality, which she has promoted and supported as a leading member of the feminist movement. In 1971 she helped found the Women’s Caucus for Art, of which she became president in 1974. Her reports for The Art Journal on the role of women as artists, academics and museum professionals are still highly illuminating.
An echo of these intellectual concerns can be found in her collection in a brush drawing by Elisabetta Sirani (above), a study which Harris identified as the preparatory drawing for a 1663 altarpiece.
‘Slowly these artists must be integrated into their art historical context,’ Harris has written. ‘For too long they have either been omitted altogether or isolated, and discussed as women artists, and not simply as artists, as if in some strange way they were not a part of their culture at all.’
Her endeavours in this respect have had a tangible impact. ‘Some of the women we included in Women Artists, 1550-1950 — such as Lavinia Fontana, Judith Leyster, Artemisia Gentileschi and Sirani — have since gone on to fame with excellent one-woman exhibitions and serious monographs about their work,’ notes Harris. ‘Most recently, there was a wonderful exhibition devoted to Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun at the Metropolitan Museum in 2016. I would love to see an exhibition of female still-life painters, especially Rachel Ruysch and also Louise Moillon. And yes, I would love to own a work by each of them!’