Drawing became modern in the 18th century, when it left the confines of the artist’s studio to enter an expanded field of discourse, culture, politics, and social life. This transformation is most evident in France, where drawing was significantly, and influentially, repositioned and reconceptualized. This exhibition traces the emergence of the modern understanding of drawing from the 18th through the 19th century in multiple senses: as an autonomous form of expression, an index of the artist’s style, an object of aesthetic contemplation, an epistemological tool, and a commodity. The variety of techniques, materials, and approaches presented here offer a historically complex answer to the basic question: what does it mean to draw?

While historically grounded, the exhibition is not organized chronologically; rather, it is arranged around a constellation of categories that speak to key aspects of drawing. The display is divided into three sections—Medium, Object, Discourse—and, within them, into several subsections that treat the basic procedures of drawings not merely as the means but also as the agents of representation. “Medium” refers to the conjunction of materials and techniques with the historically specific conventions that govern their use in drawing. It explores artists’ interaction with, rather than simply their use of, the material bases of drawings. “Object” addresses the social and cultural functions and uses of drawing, focusing on its role as a tool of artistic instruction, its relation to reproductive technologies, its uses in architecture and decorative design, and its contribution to the production of knowledge. “Discourse” considers drawing as a means of conceptualization as well as a visual mode of thinking in and of itself.

This exhibition is the result of a unique collaboration between Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, the William Dorr Boardman Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard University; Elizabeth M. Rudy, the Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Associate Curator of Prints at the Harvard Art Museums; and the Harvard students who helped develop and organize the exhibition in the context of two seminars taught in the Fall 2015 and Spring 2016 semesters, in the museums’ Art Study Center.