Great drawings from Britain; In Holbein's hands, every portrait sitter had dignity and distinction

Very few artists could draw as well as Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), and none could draw better. Michelangelo's drawings may be more monumental, Leonardo's more idealized, Durer's more energetic, and Picasso's more inventive. But none matches Holbein's for clear and precise linear characterization.

Holbein's portrait drawings are among the most nearly perfect works of art anyone has so far produced. They represent a rare and extraordinary creative sensibility distilling complex physical and psychological realities into the simplest and most elegant of lines - lines that tell us all we want to know about the sitter's looks, character, dress, and social position.

But that's not all. Holbein's sensibilities, style, and artistic ideals were so acute and well defined that his portraits, specifically human as they may be, are also a highly personal vision of idealized humanity. In his hands, any sitter, be he commoner or king, achieves dignity and distinction.

A large number of Holbein drawings from the Royal Library at Windsor Castle are now on view at the Pierpont Morgan Library here. This is their first trip to the United States (they were first shown at the J. Paul Getty Museum in California), and it may well be the last. Since drawings are extremely sensitive to handling and light and can easily be damaged, moving them about is always a very risky undertaking.

In addition to the 70 drawings and one painted miniature from England, the Morgan library is showing some of its own possessions. These include letters, manuscripts, and books concerning the life, literature, religion, and politics of the early 16th century. The Metropolitan Museum also has loaned several portrait miniatures by Holbein, and two paintings - one of Erasmus - have been added by private collectors.

It all adds up to an exhibition of special meaning to anyone who loves drawings. For such a person, it would prove a rare event, and one of the most beautiful exhibitions he will ever see.

But it will also prove fascinating to those more interested in history than in art, for the drawings depict members of the royal court of King Henry VIII. There are members of the royal family (Queens Jane Seymour and Anne Boleyn, as well as Prince Edward, later King Edward VI); Sir Thomas More with members of his family; other humanists and scholars; poets; soldiers; politicians; all kinds of officials; and ladies-in-waiting to the queens.

They're all there, lined up for our inspection, some of them looking directly at us. All are magnificent drawings. Has there ever been a more sensitive and beautiful portrait drawing, for instance, than the one of ''Sir John Godsalve,'' comptroller of the Royal Mint? Even though his black coat has probably been retouched by a later hand, the drawing itself is breathtakingly crisp and clear. And what more could one want from a portrait drawing than what one finds in ''John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester'' or ''Anne Cresacre''? And yet, they are of roughly the same quality as most of the other drawings on view.

Some are loosely sketched (''John Russell,'' ''Sir Thomas More''), while others are more richly detailed (''Thomas Boleyn,'' ''Sir Richard Southwell''). But whatever their degree of finish, they all depict very real human beings. Holbein's style may have been classically severe, but it was also flexible enough to portray each individual on his own terms. For all their formal purity, Holbein's portraits were undoubtedly ''speaking likenesses.''

They were also generally intended to serve as preparatory studies for painted portraits. As such, they occasionally include color notations and indicate the texture of the fabrics or furs he was to paint. In some instances, costumes were precisely delineated, with every tiny knot and bit of lace in place and with color added for emphasis.

The Holbein drawings from the Royal Collection were mounted on the pages of a large volume shortly after the artist's passing. They were highly regarded even then, for the volume was owned by, among others, King Edward VI and the Earl of Arundel before coming into the possession of King Charles II. In 1727, Queen Caroline, wife of King George II, found them in a bureau and ordered them to be taken out of the book, framed, glazed, and hung in her apartment. They were back on the pages of two books a few years later, were once again removed in the 19th century, and only recently were individually mounted between two panes of acrylic sheeting.

All this has caused damage. Even so, the majority retain most of their original vigor and character, if not all their texture and detail. Many, in fact , are remarkably fresh, despite the fact that several have been touched up by later hands.

Even if only a dozen of these drawings were in any condition to be viewed, I'd recommend this show. And, as it stands, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

At the Pierpont Morgan Library, 29 East 36th Street, through July 30. Spencer sampling

Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was one of the best, but also one of the least understood British artists of this century. His idiosyncratic and often deeply allegorical religious paintings violated all modernist tenets and didn't sit well at first with the Royal Academy, either. He was respected by some art lovers, but ignored or reviled by others - at least until the 1950s, when he was honored by a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery, elected to full membership in the Royal Academy, and knighted.

Even so, he is still seen as an oddball artist, one of those strange, eccentric painters England produces two or three times every century who can never be satisfactorily classified. (It's not, however, a bad group to belong to - witness such other members as Hogarth, Blake, Palmer, Rossetti, Beardsley, and Bacon.)

As part of the Britain Salutes New York Arts Festival, the CDS Gallery here is hosting a small but excellent sampling of Spencer's art. This consists of several small to medium-size paintings and a broad selection of studies and drawings. Included are such early works as ''The Crucifixion'' of 1922 and ''Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors'' of 1933, as well as paintings representing his later years.

Particularly noteworthy are the drawings, which range from a remarkable self-portrait at 21 to detailed working studies for his various projects. They reveal him to have been an excellent draftsman, with a very imaginative sense of line and an easy control over linear patterning.

Although perhaps not to everyone's liking, Spencer's art must be taken seriously. More than anything, this exhibition whets my appetite for a major retrospective of his work in an American museum. He deserves it, and Americans deserve the opportunity to see his paintings in greater depth and detail.

At the CDS Gallery, 13 East 75th Street, through May 28.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Great drawings from Britain; In Holbein's hands, every portrait sitter had dignity and distinction
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today