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Yale University Art Gallery Receives Gift of the Roberta Olson and Alexander Johnson Collection of Italian Works on Paper

The Yale University Art Gallery announces the extraordinary gift/purchase of more than 190 late 18th- and 19th-century Italian drawings, watercolors, and sketchbooks from the collection of Roberta J. M. Olson and Alexander B. V. Johnson. Comprising over 400 individual sheets, this superb trove is among the finest in private hands anywhere in the world and represents a comprehensive, panoramic view of drawings by Italian artists made between 1780 and 1890, a period known as the Ottocento. Together, these works define and illuminate the multiple artistic trends at play in the art and politics of the Italian Peninsula during this pivotal century. With this remarkable cache, the Gallery becomes the largest repository of and primary research center in the United States for 19th-century Italian art.

Freyda Spira, the Robert L. Solley Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Gallery, comments, “The Olson/Johnson collection offers an exceptional opportunity to explore this rich but underrepresented period in American collections. We’re thrilled to be the recipient of such an extraordinary, transformative gift.”

The collection contains works by major artists from all the regional schools; those represented in-depth include Andrea Appiani, Lorenzo Bartolini, Giovanni Boldini, Giacinto Gigante, Tommaso Minardi, Pelagio Pelagi, Bartolomeo Pinelli, and Luigi Sabatelli. It also features singular works by other highly significant artists, such as Giacomo Balla, Antonio Canova, and Giulio Aristide Sartorio. With the exception of Pinelli and Sabatelli, each of whom is represented in the Gallery’s collection by a superlative example, the artists in the gift are not already found in the museum’s holdings. The Olson/Johnson collection includes an astonishing 39 drawings and watercolors by Pinelli, as well as a rare album of watercolors, and 11 sheets by Sabatelli, three of which are to be counted among the artist’s greatest masterpieces.

The Gallery has a long history of collecting European and American works of art from the 19th-century—the age of nationalism—and the Olson/Johnson works build on that tradition, increasing the breadth of its holdings. Although drawings by Ottocento artists are scattered in major museums throughout the United States, there is no institution with extensive, in-depth holdings like those now in the Gallery’s collection as a result of this acquisition. Scholars, students, and visitors alike will be able to delve more deeply into the history of the period and its artists, expanding an understanding of the 19th century in Europe during this rich and turbulent period.

About the Olson/Johnson Collection

Unlike most 19th-century European countries, the Italian Peninsula had not enjoyed a unified political organization since Roman times. Carved up by foreign powers as the chessboard of Europe, its allegiances remained regional. Beginning with Napoleon Bonaparte’s occupation in 1796 through the early age of nationalism, artists and writers created an Italian consciousness long before the declaration of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 and the final unification of the country in 1870. The Olson/Johnson collection reveals how Italian artists of this exciting yet tumultuous period were part of the revolutionary political and cultural push to assert a national identity for Italy—a movement known as the Risorgimento. The word risorgimento, meaning “to rise up,” was chosen because Italians envisioned their homeland overcoming its internal political divisions and regionalism and reasserting its prominent place in Western culture.

Through a study of the works in this collection, which begins with imagery of the late Grand Tour in Rome—the Eternal City and the artistic melting pot at the end of the 18th century—it is clear that the artists were not as isolated in their respective regions or towns as previously thought; rather, they employed similar styles across geographic areas. They also participated in broader European movements, such as Neoclassicism, Romanticism, and Realism, and worked in and traveled throughout several major artistic centers—including Rome, Milan, Naples, Venice, and Florence—all of which possessed their own academies of art. Due to its depth and breadth, this magnificent collection stands apart as one of the few to be able to tell the full story of the country’s artistic output during this era.

About the Collectors

Roberta J. M. Olson, Ph.D., and Alexander B. V. Johnson, who met at Princeton University, are passionate collectors of European art from the 16th through the mid-20th centuries, with a focus on the late 18th through the mid-19th centuries. Johnson, who had a long career in real estate finance and whose father, E. Dudley H. Johnson, received his Ph.D. in English from Yale University, is on the board of the Master Drawings Association. Olson, Professor of Art History Emerita at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts, and Curator of Drawings Emerita at the New-York Historical Society, is the author of many books and articles on art. Together, they have been collecting since the early 1970s and are actively continuing their collecting adventure.

More information:

Andrea Appiani, the elder, “Study for the Head of Victory in Gratitude Presented to Napoleon on Horseback,” 1802. Black, white, and red chalk over graphite. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Roberta Olson, Ph.D., and Alexander Johnson