Bryson Burroughs, Artist-Curator

Three academic studies in the Art Students League’s collection.

Bryson Burroughs drawings
Bryson Burroughs, Untitled, graphite, 24.75 x 14.5 in. Collection of the Art Students League of New York.

The work of an art student is a snapshot of a moment. Student artwork can provide the first act in a career narrative, or it may offer but a hint of later developments. I’m thinking of Bryson Burroughs, who is represented in the Art Students League of New York’s permanent collection by three figure drawings. They are very fine, but they don’t shed much light on Burroughs’s most significant contributions to the art world. As are many artists, Burroughs was compelled for financial reasons to take on a side hustle, and his second career was higher profile than most. In the mornings he painted in his studio, then went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the afternoons, where he was the chief Curator of Paintings.

Burroughs was born in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, in 1869. Soon thereafter his father died and the family relocated to Cincinnati. After studying art at the city’s museum and doing some illustration, he moved to New York City. He registered at the League in 1889, as a student of Kenyon Cox and H. Siddons Mowbray. Both Cox and Mowbray were accomplished figure draftsmen, muralists and decorators whose sometimes sensual proclivities were in the end sublimated to classicism. That prioritization of ideal design fairly well describes Burroughs’s sympathies, and can be seen in his student drawings.

Bryson Burroughs drawings
Bryson Burroughs, Untitled, graphite, 25 x 14.5 in. Collection of the Art Students League of New York.

Or not. Even the contrapposto and assured technique aren’t sufficient classical devices to distract from the eroticism in Burroughs’s drawing of an unselfconscious boy (Coincidentally, Burroughs created a scandal some years later when he exhibited a painting of nude children wading in a stream; one attributes these works to an earnest innocence.) At any event, it was the instructor or their monitor who arranged the pose, and Burroughs’s task was to render it in the aesthetic of the day. This he did very well, drawing the model with charcoal to achieve a soft-focus three-dimensional effect. The least resolved passages are—as usual—the feet. Their blocky abstraction suggests Burroughs’s approach to the figure—a literal ‘blocking in’—that preceded the finely tuned modulations that mimic the swells and recessions of the human form.

Another figure study by Burroughs is of a standing female nude. It, too, is sensitively drawn, with an exceptional understanding of the play of light over smooth forms. Both drawings are worthy academic studies that balance the era’s idealizations with realism: the young woman’s demure pose and softened contours coexist with the naturalistic observation of her portrait. Every life drawing atelier has sought to reconcile the tension between what is seen and how it is to be abstracted, synthesized, and presented. Within the League’s immense collection of life drawings, it’s possible to view the evolution of styles, first by era and then by individual instructors. Often the two are inseparable—when Burroughs enrolled with Cox and Mowbray, he was signing on with different personalities who were nonetheless both teaching ideas that were consistent with prevailing values. It’s understandable that when Robert Henri, for instance, emerged a generation later, his exhortations to students that they take to the streets and draw the life around them struck a raw and revitalizing nerve. At the League, the academic sensibility of Burroughs’s drawings would be replaced by new approaches in the twentieth century, most notably the robust mechanisms taught by George Bridgman.

The quality of Burroughs’s student work was recognized immediately. Curatorial notes that accompany the drawings state:

inscribed: (LR) Bryson Burroughs, 21 Irving Pl, NY, Sept. 8, 1869. This is likely one of two drawings submitted for the Chanler Prize, which Burroughs won in 1890 and which allowed him to study in Paris at the Academie Julian. Competition entrants often were required to sign their name, address, and date of birth on their submitted drawings. Burroughs was born in 1869.

Burroughs won the Chanler Prize (then referred to as the Paris Prize, founded by John Armstrong Chanler) in its inaugural presentation. According to published accounts, fifty-three students submitted two life drawings each—Burroughs’s entries are probably those in the League collection—then twenty finalists submitted a figure drawing, portrait painting and a color composition of a predetermined subject. The prize recipient was awarded five years abroad, with the stipulation that the first two years be spent studying in Paris. It was there, at the Academie Julian, that Burroughs drew a figure of an older male model. The League’s notes read, in part:

Academic drawing, figure study, male nude, seated Drawing
note: signed by Benjamin Constant, Carolus Duran, Puvis de Chavannes and Gerome.
Note: Probably sent back to ASL from Paris as evidence of Burroughs’ work there on the League’s Paris Prize.

Bryson Burroughs drawings
Bryson Burroughs, Untitled, 1892, graphite, 28 x 18.5 in. Collection of the Art Students League of New York.

There’s a lot of marginalia around the figure, including what appears to be “OCT – 92,” presumably the date the drawing was completed. If this drawing can be accepted as typical—and given that it was sent to New York as proof of Burroughs’s progress, that is a safe assumption—the technique Burroughs practiced at the Academie Julian was different from that which he’d undertaken at the League. Although the New York drawings were constructed on a linear base and retain charcoal accents within the shadows, the overall approach is tonal, the values possibly spread with a chamois or soft cloth. The Parisian drawing conspicuously avoids this method in favor of building values through networks of fine lines. The result is equally effective, and particularly successful in depicting the complex anatomical makeup of an older model, as at the neck, rib cage and the foreshortened lower leg and foot (Each method presents challenges to the student draftsman: vine charcoal is easily smudged, and can allow a student to avoid committing a definitive mark; working with a fine tool is a good discipline, yet it can also be a ticket to a preoccupation with minutiae). Burroughs’s willingness to practice different approaches anticipates the eclecticism of his mature drawings, when he worked in a variety of media and for different purposes. Though his drawing became more personal, he rarely, if ever, sought to achieve the impressive verisimilitude of these early studies.

In Paris, Burroughs met Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, whose work exerted a strong influence. As Vivien Raynor noted in a New York Times review in 1984, it wasn’t so much Puvis’s modernity that appealed to Burroughs. “He adopted the French master’s flatness and his faded palette, but apparently was most interested in keeping the great subjects of art alive — biblical stories, Greek myths and the like.” Burroughs exhibited widely, and his paintings won prizes in major expositions. The great Renaissance art historian Bernard Berenson thought he was an exceptional American painter of his era. But his brand of classicism didn’t wear well as the public’s attention followed the sequence of movements that comprised early twentieth-century modernism. When the Metropolitan Museum honored Burroughs with a memorial exhibition in 1935, the show received an unusually caustic review from Lewis Mumford in the New Yorker, which generated significant protests written in Burroughs’s defense. At least his work doesn’t suffer from the self-seriousness so often attached to the preservation of traditions. “Burroughs’s classicism,” wrote art historian and onetime director of the Whitney Museum Lloyd Goodrich, “was free from the kitsch of French salon art and the solemnity of American mural painting with its idealized Greco-American females symbolizing civic virtues.” The gentle humor of Burroughs’s painted idylls has often been noted. For Goodrich, “The humor of these pictures is never as broad as burlesque nor as bitter as satire.”

Burroughs’s other talents—a knowledge of art history, a discerning eye, and an amiable character—must have been apparent. When Roger Fry, a British painter and champion of progressive art, was made Curator of Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1906, he hired Burroughs as Assistant Curator. The institutional honeymoon was short-lived. Both men were nearly fired by the museum’s trustees the following year for convincing the director to spend $20,000 on a major Renoir, Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children; of course, they turned out to be right. In 1909, Burroughs succeeded Fry as Curator, a position he held until 1934. He shared Fry’s enthusiasm for Cézanne, and in 1913, the museum’s trustees quickly approved his request to purchase the first painting by the artist to enter a public collection in this country. Notable acquisitions of old masters during his tenure included Crucifixion and Last Judgment by Jan Van Eyck, Pieter Brueghel’s Harvesters, Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates, and Michelangelo’s drawing of the Libyan Sibyl, the last at the suggestion of John Singer Sargent. Burroughs was especially dedicated to building the museum’s holdings in American painting, often at odds with trustees who prioritized the purchase of old masters. Eager to procure late watercolors by Winslow Homer, he corresponded anxiously with the artist, and organized the Met’s memorial Thomas Eakins exhibition of 1917 while enlarging the museum’s collection of Eakins’s work. In a 1932 article, Time magazine noted Burroughs’s recent purchases of paintings by American regionalists and contemporary realists, among them League instructors Reginald Marsh, Arnold Blanch, Allen Tucker, and Hayley Lever.

Bryson Burroughs, Artist-Curator
Henri Caro-Delvaille, Bryson Burroughs, 1917, oil on canvas, 39 × 40 1/2 in. Princeton University Art Museum. Gift of Stuart P. Feld, Class of 1957, and Sue K. Feld

Burroughs’s ties to the Art Students League of New York were deep. He was enrolled from 1889 through 1891 and served on the Board of Control. The Chanler scholarship enabled further study in Paris, which provided the definitive influence for his art. Perhaps more importantly, the scholarship enabled extensive travel in Italy and England, thus broadening Burroughs’s exposure to European painting, an invaluable preparation for his future as a museum curator. After he returned to New York, Burroughs was briefly League president before teaching from 1899 to 1902. In the role of curator, he was instrumental in the Metropolitan Museum’s acquisition of work by League instructors. On a personal level, Burroughs met his first wife while both were students at the League; Edith Woodman Burroughs was a sculptor who began her studies at the age of fifteen with Kenyon Cox and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Though her career was truncated by an early death, she enjoyed recognition as an artist. Their daughter, Betty, married League royalty—Reginald Marsh. Their son, Alan, became an art historian and married Molly Luce, a painter of fantastical landscapes who had studied at the League.

The life studies in the League’s collection are, firstly, evidence of Burroughs’s youthful abilities. They also constitute early landmarks in a career that would eventually have a lasting impact on one of the world’s major museums, and on American art. For twenty-five years, Burroughs served as chief Curator of Painting at the Met, and despite resistance from conservative trustees, he enjoyed great latitude in determining the museum’s direction. In addition to adding to the collection of old masters, he championed European modernism and American art, and brought the Met into the twentieth century. And in the mornings he painted.

JERRY WEISS (@jerrynweiss) teaches “Drawing from Life” and “Painting and Drawing from Life” in-person at the Art Students League of New York. Bryson Burroughs drawing

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