The splendid art of drawing -- at its very best

Having just come from the Metropolitan Museum's stunning exhibition "19th Century French Drawings and Prints," I am impelled to throw critical caution to the winds and recommend that everyone who can walk, fly, or drive to see it, do so.

It's an extraordinary showing of 125 masterpieces on paper from the museum's extensive holdings, and includes some of the greatest drawings and prints executed in the 19th century. Chief among these is Seurat's ravishing "Portrait of Edmond-Francois Aman-Jean," surely one of the great drawings of all time, and so perfectly realized that it would hold its own next to the best paintings of Vermeer and Velazquez. To see it flanked by other Seurats, and by Daumier's magnificient wash drawings, is to see the art of drawing at its very best.

The effect of this handful of first-rate drawings is so totally satisfying that I was tempted to go no farther into the exhibition galleries. Professional obligations, however, drew me onward, and I have no regrets that I obeyed them.

What I found inside was a veritable treasure-trove of linear and tonal masterpieces. Although a few were old friends from previous visits to the museum, and a few were familiar from reproduction, there were enough "new faces" among them to give me the feeling of a delightful party at which old friends were introducing me to new ones.

It was quite a heady experience, made somewhat poignant by the fact that most of these works will not see the light of day again for quite a while: Works on paper, because of their sensitivity to light, are rarely shown.

It made me think: If I had my way, I'd banish all painted works in color for a year in order to give the art-loving public a greater opportunity to realize the magic that exists in drawings -- and in "old fashioned" black-and-white prints. I would then introduce them to the glories of drawing, seen through an exhibition such as this.

They would discover the thrill of pure line against sparkling white paper probing its way toward brilliant characterization, as in Ingres's great "Louis-Francois Bertin," or in his other portrait studies in this show. Or the way line whips about in the hands of Toulouse-Lautrec, for whom it was an exercise in high-speed efficiency. Or as it moves in and out among tones and smudges, corrections, and additions, in such a magnificent life study as Degas's "Portrait of Manet Seated."

On the other hand, line can be softly suggestive, as in Gauguin's lovely pastel "Tahitian," or in the delicate lithographs of Redon. The latter's magnificently dramatic charcoal-and-crayon "Study of a Head" proves how rich and opulent the blackest of blacks can look when properly related to a perfectly adjusted minimum of white. And Bresdin's prints establish once again that thousands of tiny lines and dots can indeed add up to an image as rich as any work in color.

In fact, Bresdin's large and complex lithograph "The Good Samaritan" will go a long way toward convincing any skeptic that a strong black-and-white creative talent can make color seem superfluous. It will also prove that patience and technical skill canm pay off.

Then there are the elegant figure studies of Chasseriau, the landscape drawings of Millet, Theodore Rousseau, and Decamps, the studies and watercolors of Cezanne -- most especially his monumental and yet oddly intimate pencil "Self Portrait" -- and such a piece of largely art-historical interest as Rosa Bonheur's study for her famous "The Horse Fair."

Among the prints, our beginning enthusiast would find works by Daumier, Corot , Lautrec, Bonnard, Delacroix, Gericault, Pissarro, Degas, Meryon, and Gauguin -- to list only those whose names spring immediately to mind, and mostly in superb impressions.

If that isn't enough, one need only walk down a flight of stairs and toward the bowels of the museum to where the Lehman Collection is housed to find another superb collection of drawings on view -- this time works of the Italian 18th century.

Although the range here isn't as broad or the quality as high, there will still be enough magnificent drawings to easily satisfy a novice's curiosity or an expert's cravings.

Outstanding here are a large number of wash drawings by Giandomenico Giovanni Tiepolo, including his tiny but marvelous "Landscape With Castle," the warm and charming "A Herd of Oxen," and the series devoted to the activities of Punchinelli.

The works in these galleries tend to be a bit more self- consciously elegant, but then they are, after all, from the 18th century -- and so reflect a world view and formal attitude very different from the works on paper of the French 19 th century.

Seen together, these two shows should teach anyone interested a great deal of what drawing is all about. It should satisfy even the most discriminating lover of good draftsmanship that he is in the presence of a dozen or so of the world's very greatest -- to say nothing of dozens of its very best -- drawings and prints.

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