BRUNSWICK — The story behind a new exhibition about drawing at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art begins in 1811, when the college’s primary benefactor, James Bowdoin III, included 141 old-master drawings in his original gift to the college.

His gift also included money, land, books and scientific instruments. All were important in establishing the reputation of the college, which was chartered in 1794 and began flourishing in the 1820s after Maine separated from Massachusetts and became its own state.

What made the gift of art remarkable, and the reason it remains vital to the museum and to the history of American art today, is that the still-intact collection is believed to be the earliest American collection of European drawings that is open to the public. Moreover, several of the drawings may well have provided the foundation for the careers of Boston painters John Singleton Copley, John Trumbull and others.

“Many of the drawings in the Bowdoin bequest have been in the country since 1729, which is pretty cool,” museum curator Joachim Homann said. “When Copley was learning about art, he was looking at many of the works in the Bowdoin collection.”

This summer, visitors to the museum can see many of the drawings that likely inspired Copley, a top Boston painter during Colonial times, to become an artist. With more than 150 works by American and European artists, “Why Draw?” examines the many different roles that the act of drawing plays in an artist’s practice and offers insight into how drawing has changed with the advent of technology and how it yet remains very much the same today as it was 500 years ago.

“The Barefoot Child,” by Mary Cassatt, 1897, pastel.

A drawing can be as simple as quickly formed lines on a page designed to capture an inspiration, or a fully executed piece of art to be appreciated as something grand. And despite the advent of digital media and all its conveniences, drawing remains a critical part of many artists’ daily routine.

The oldest drawing in the exhibition dates to the 1500s and comes from the workshop of Raphael, the Italian Renaissance artist. It was among the drawings that were part of James Bowdoin’s original gift to the college. Others are contemporary, by living Maine artists David Driskell, Alex Katz and others. Each says something specific about why an artist draws and why drawing is foundational to an artist’s practice, Homann said.

All are part of Bowdoin’s collection of works on paper, which now numbers close to 2,000. “Why Draw?” also includes watercolors by Winslow Homer and pastels by Mary Cassatt, among others. Museums include watercolors and pastels with their collections of ink and pencil drawings because all are works on paper and have similar requirements for safe keeping, and as Homann notes, watercolors play a similar role as drawings in an artist’s practice because both are spontaneous and quickly rendered.

No one is certain how James Bowdoin acquired his drawings. (The college is named after his father, who had served as governor of Massachusetts.) Scholars have traced the origin of the collection to the philosopher George Berkeley and the Scottish painter John Smibert.

Copy from Donatello’s “Miracle of the Miser’s Heart,” from the workshop of Raphael, ca. 1505–20, pen and brown ink, from James Bowdoin III’s bequest.

The two men came to North America in the early 1700s with the intent of establishing an art academy in Bermuda as a way to foster Protestantism. The arts were important to Berkeley, and Smibert was a leading artist in London. For teaching purposes, Smibert brought with him drawings that he had acquired in Italy a few years before he crossed the Atlantic.

In the 18th century, scholars believed that learning to draw “inculcated virtue and discerning qualities of perception in the student,” writes Yale art historian Caroline O. Fowler in a catalog essay.

The school in Bermuda never materialized. Berkeley went home and Smibert stayed in North America, eventually establishing a studio in Boston. He used the drawings that he brought with him from Europe in his teaching, which influenced Sargent, Trumbull and other early-18th-century Boston painters. “The drawings that were originally intended as part of a utopian mission formed the pedagogic foundation of Colonial painting in North America,” Fowler writes.

“Woman and Cild, by Bernardino Poccetti, 1604-1606, black and red chalk

The museum will explore that relationship further on July 25, when Katharine J. Watson, the museum’s director emerita, talks about the 1811 bequest that established the museum.

Bowdoin’s collection of drawings is not static, Homann said, calling it “a repository that continues to grow and is very much alive, and gives us the opportunity to look at 500 years of drawings, from Raphael to Alex Katz.” The exhibition includes many recently acquired pieces, including a 2014 drawing of the singer Pharrell Williams, simply titled “Pharrell,” by Katz. It’s the first drawing that people see when they enter the exhibition, and, at 7 feet tall, it’s impossible to miss.

Katz made it as a preparatory drawing for a finished painting and donated it to Bowdoin for the show. He employed a Renaissance technique that involves making holes in the paper, which is then placed on top of the painting surface and chalked, creating an outline for the painting.

“I think it’s very interesting that Alex Katz is using today a technique that artists invented in the Renaissance,” Homann said.

The exhibition shows viewers how drawing has served artists “from invention to observation” in such a successful way that “there is nothing that has replaced it 500 years later,” he said.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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