Two drawings that tell stories about a great age of art

Two of the greatest drawings produced in the 19th century, Georges Seurat's "Couple Dancing" and van Gogh's "Arles: View From the Wheatfields," are on view at Acquavella Galleries here.

They are part of this gallery's impressive selection of important 19th and 20 th century art, which also includes superb paintings by Monet, Renoir, Corot, Sisley, Signac, Boudin, Matisse, and Bonnard -- and less exceptional works by other modern masters.

Even in this illustrious company, these two drawings stand out. Not only because they are magnificent drawings, but also because they are so quintessentially Seurat and van Gogh. If all other drawings by these artists were to be lost or forgotten, we would still, thanks to these two examples, have a very clear idea of how their drawings looked and what they were all about.

It's not often that drawings of this caliber can be seen in a gallery, or even in a museum for that matter. Few dealers operate on that a high level, and museums are reluctant to expose their valuable and often fragile drawings to bright light for any length of time.

(Anyone partial to drawings, especially to those by Seurat and van Gogh, should try to visit this exhibition.)

By saying that, however, I don't wish to denigrate the paintings. Far from it. Most are exceptional, and a good half-dozen rank among the choicest paintings of the past century.

Pride of place among these goes to Alfred Sisley's "The Prunay Road to Bougival." It's a near-perfect Sisley, and a beautiful example of impressionism at its purest and simplest.

There's not much to it: a country road upon which we see two men and a horse cart, a rough indication of a fence, a few trees, and a wooded area -- all under a mildly overcast sky. But the quality of the light is so consistent, the touches of paint establishing authenticity are so shrewdly and subtly placed, the sense of space is so clearly defined that we accept the painting as living and breathing actuality rather than as a flat picture on a wall. The horse, especially, is so perfectly realized that we totally accept it as a horse even though it is actually nothing but a few smears of white paint and one dark dot.

But then, that's the magic of impressionism.

Something of that same magic can also be seen in Monet's 1908 "The Ducal Palace, Venice," which is all about shimmering late afternoon sunlight upon white building facade and upon water. And in Renoir's lovely "Young Woman Bathing," although in the latter case that magic is fused with a more traditional concept of how to draw the human form.

The human form is also superbly handled in Corot's "Judith," a full-length study of a woman dramatically placed against a brilliant sky. It is one of Corot's very last paintings, and one of his most interesting, for it includes elements of both his early and late styles.

Eugene Boudin, that master of the horizontal image, is represented by another of his low, spread-out landscapes. In this case it's his ravishing "View of Antibes," a painting which displays his compositional limitations but also his near-genius at portraying light and atmosphere to the hilt. It's one of that artist's best paintings, and proof that even a relatively uneven talent can succeed magnificantly.

Another less-than-first-rate talent to succeed impressively in this exhibition is Paul Signac. "The Port of Collicure" is a sweeping seaport panorama executed in a classically neo-impressionist style. It projects a wonderfully real and lively sense of atmosphere and of place, quite unlike so many of this artist's other works in which painterly theory wins out over perceptual experience.

Matisse and Bonnard are represented by paintings of rich, riotous color whose forms bear only a minimum resemblance to the flowers and baskets of fruits from which they derived. The Bonnard, especially, is pure painting at its best.

Except for Matisse and Bonnard, the 20th century does less well than the 19th in this exhibition. Even Picasso, who can usually be counted on to represent this century with passion and inventiveness, if not always with glory, falls short. His 1901 "Mother and Child" is a minor work more dependent upon sentiment than art for its effect, and his two small studies of female heads are essentially just that: studies. His 1926 "Collage," while interesting, lacks both the punch and the startling sense of originally of his other collages of that and preceding periods.

The Derain, Leger, and Miro are moderately interesting, with the latter existing more as an historical document detailing a crucial moment in Miro's career than as a work of art. And the less said about the Max Ernst and the Rene Magritte the better.

That leaves only Yves Tanguy, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline, all of whom are represented by works considerably below par -- although the Tanguy does have more than just a spark of life in it.

This exhibition at Acquavella Galleries of superlative 19th-century art and moderately interesting art of the 20th will remain on view through Nov. 15.

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