Along the lines of greatness

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Master drawings by da Vinci, Van Gogh, Dürer and others at The Met


  • Albrecht Dürer's irrepressible curiosity comes through in this two-sided drawing, "Self-portrait, Study of a Hand and a Pillow (recto); Six Studies of Pillows (verso)," 1493. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Leonardo da Vinci drew "A Bear Walking" in about 1482. It's on view at the Met Fifth Avenue. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • A pensive portrait, "Head of a Man in Profile" by Luca Signorelli in the 1490s is still so fresh, it looks like someone you might see today. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Rembrandt's masterful strokes reveal the artist's thoughts and second thoughts in "The Last Supper, after Leonardo da Vinci," 1634-35. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • An early work by Vincent van Gogh, "Road in Etten," from 1881, is a highlight of the Met's "Leonardo to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Robert Lehman Collection." Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • In the charming "Study of a Ballet Dancer" (recto) and "Two Studies of Dancers" (verso) Edgar Degas utilized watercolor on prepared pink paper. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • In "The Dining Room," from 1886-87, Paul Signac displays devotion to technique and attention to the cool emotional state of the sitters, Signac's mother, grandfather and housekeeper. Photo: Adel Gorgy

Leonardo da Vinci’s little drawing of a bear feels much bigger than it should. At only 4 x 5 inches, you have to step close to see its delicate silverpoint lines. But, once da Vinci’s got your attention, he holds it. It’s just a sketch, really, a few quick lines made by the point of a stylus dragged across a lightly buffed paper. But that’s where its magic lies. Those dashed off lines record thoughts, in this case coming from one of history’s great minds and placed directly before our eyes. We see the pentimenti, the visible traces of earlier lines. They’re passages where the master rethought. Should the nose be this long, or a little shorter? How far apart should the back legs be? Once da Vinci had completed a bear, he drew an extra paw, just to focus on how it’s formed. As we stand almost nose to glass to see the work, on display in the Met Fifth Avenue’s Lehman Wing, we see an even fainter image. Between the head and paw of the bear is a barely visible sideways drawing of a woman’s or a girl’s head and the outline of her shoulders. Glance briefly, or from too far away, and you’ll miss her entirely.

Discoveries like these are part of the delight of looking at drawings. They offer an immediacy and intimacy that completed paintings or sculptures often can’t. They’re not just works of art, though those on display in “Leonardo to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Robert Lehman Collection”, on view through January 7, are spectacular creations. They’re also insights into the thinking and working methods of artists. In this exhibition of some 60 master European drawings, organized by curator Dita Amory with associate curator Alison Nogueira, they even allow insights into the mind of the collector.

Robert Lehman began purchasing drawings in the 1920s, building on his father’s collection of paintings. Rather than sticking to one school or century, Lehman bought what he liked. Over the years, his tastes changed. After accumulating Renaissance works on paper under the guidance of legendary dealers like Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen, he became interested in Modernism and bought directly from the studios of radical French artists. As a result, the collection spans Italian, Spanish, Northern European and French artists from the 14th to the 20th centuries and encompasses much of the progression of Western art. From Fra Bartolomeo’s 1501 landscape and Luca Signorelli’s c. 1490 “Head of a Man in Profile,” (which illustrates the scientific study of perspective but also the composure of a man deep in thought) to Henri Matisse’s 1945 blocky, simplified odalisque study, “Reflection in the Mirror,” each piece adds to the bigger picture.

Leonardo comes back into the spotlight in Rembrandt’s drawing “The Last Supper, after Leonardo da Vinci,” the exquisite draftsmanship of which can only be experienced firsthand. Rembrandt, who never traveled to Italy, had only seen the da Vinci masterpiece in other artists’ reproductions. Ever inventive, he took it upon himself to re-imagine it. It’s a work of striking contrasts. On close viewing, the dark and light, quickness and surety of Rembrandt’s strokes are palpable. He dashes off faces of the apostles, like the figure at the far left with just five or six lines, yet we see the profile and the intense expression of a bald, bearded, muscular man. At the center is Jesus. At first, Rembrandt sketched him young and gentle with flowing curly hair. Then, he went back and drew over the original, changing to an older, more contemplative, downward-looking countenance. In the canopy backing the scene, the wood grain from Rembrandt’s table causes breaks in the lines, a glimpse of the artist’s studio. And at the bottom right is a small dog, a favorite Rembrandt addition.

Dürer’s extraordinary self-portrait in pen brings across a curious artist, emphasizing his hand and eyes, the tools of his trade. The few curly hairs on his chin touchingly testify to his youth. On the back, six drawings of a rumpled pillow may have been studies for the complex draped fabrics so in vogue in Netherlandish painting. It’s joined by two other Dürer works on paper. Corot’s 1825 view of “The Palatine Hill, Rome” and the 1852 “Madame Félix Gallois” by Ingres are breathtakingly detailed. A beautiful early Van Gogh drawing, “Road in Etten” from 1881 hints at his later style. A pointillist drawing by Paul Signac shows his dedication to both his craft and vision in the ten thousand (or more) individual dots of varying tone that went into its making.

Painting and color dazzle, seducing the eye. Black and white reveal. Pared down to basics, just lines — precise, impossibly controlled, and gloriously personal — they’re the handwriting of artists. “Leonardo to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Robert Lehman Collection” gives us a chance to peek into the diaries of some of the greatest.

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