O'Neal's urge to collect led him to appealing art

June 13, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Over the last 40 years, architectural historian William B. O'Neal has amassed a collection of old-master and modern drawings that numbers more than 300 works, which he has given in part and promised in part to the National Gallery of Art. Fifty-eight of them are currently on view in "Drawings From the O'Neal Collection," which makes an appropriate complement to the British watercolor show. Many of Mr. O'Neal's drawings are British, and the two shows contain works by some of the same artists, including Thomas Malton, James Ward, Francis Towne, John Varley, John Sell Cotman and John Ruskin.

Not a man of unlimited means, Mr. O'Neal was unable to spend large amounts of money buying drawings, so many of his works are by artists who may be unfamiliar to most of us. The discovery of appealing works by artists who are not household names constitutes one of the refreshing aspects of a visit to this show.

Among them are Thomas Wyck's "Piazza by Moonlight" (possibly 1650s) with its dramatic lighting; the dramatic perspective and the curiously clipped trees of Cornelis Pronk's "Ladies and Gentlemen Enjoying a Dutch Garden" (1739); and the "Head of a Young Man" (about 1650), identified only as from the Haarlem School of the 17th century. The show also has its quota of rewards by well-known artists, however, including Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, George Romney, Thomas Rowlandson and Sir Edwin Landseer.

Mr. O'Neal was without some collectors' urge to specialize and to fill in holes. His collecting was driven by nothing more complex than this charming statement: "If I saw something I liked and I could afford it, I bought it."

But his interests inevitably informed his choices to some degree, with the result that the viewer will note a number of stage designs and architectural drawings.

We hear a lot, and we should, of the donation of collections of great masterpieces to museums; less well-known is the generosity of lesser-known collectors such as Mr. O'Neal, who is also giving the fruits of his passion and his taste to the public. He must be pleased that the National Gallery has seen fit to mount an attractive show accompanied by an admirable catalog.

ART REVIEW

What: "Drawings From the O'Neal Collection"

Where: National Gallery of Art, Constitution Avenue and Fourth Street Northwest

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 15

Call: (202) 737-4215

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