IT is a rare gallery that can mount an exhibition of works by Constable, Delacroix, and Rubens - and can include some of their most incisive and revealing oil sketches and studies. Salander-O'Reilly Galleries here has done just that. True, most are on loan from museums and private collections and are not for sale, but enough are available to make this a special event.
The show's 91 paintings and drawings - 60 by Constable, 28 by Delacroix, and three by Rubens - occupy the second floor of the gallery's new quarters at 20 East 79th Street. All are modest in size; Delacroix's ``Study of a Dog,'' which measures slightly over 16 by 34 inches, is the largest. A few, especially some of Constable's oil studies of clouds, are as small as a human hand.
Size, however, is not the issue. Quality is. Here, all three artists score significantly, with Constable coming off best, Delacroix a shade behind, and Rubens bringing up the rear.
Needless to say, Rubens's position is no reflection on his genius. He was probably a greater artist than the other two combined. But his three oil sketches included here are all are relatively modest in intention and impact. Though exceptional, they give little hint of Rubens's true quality and importance. The works of Constable and Delacroix, on the other hand, come close to the heart of what these artists were all about.
Constable, in particular, is well represented. His openness, directness, and insistence on obeying nature's laws and his own perceptions, rather than the rules of tradition, are beautifully demonstrated here. In just one of his drawings, ``A Dilapidated Cottage at the Edge of a Cornfield'' (c. 1796), does tradition outweigh observation. In everything else, from his 1802 ``A View of Dedham Vale'' (which was touched up in 1828) and ``The Traveler'' of 1810, to ``Dedham Mill'' (1829) and ``In Helmingham Park'' of uncertain late date, nature and Constable's painterly grapplings with her, take precedence over everything else.
Many of his oil sketches also have a decidedly ``modern'' look. Exhibited in a show of 20th-century modernist works, ``Brighton Beach'' (1824) and ``The Roof of a House Seen Through the Trees'' (1829-30) could be mistaken for Expressionistic paintings of the 1910-20 period. And for pure, stunning painting existing apart from time and tradition, it would be difficult to find more perfect examples than the tiny (4-by-9-in.) oil sketch ``Carting Sand'' of 1814 and the aforementioned ``Brighton Beach.''
Delacroix's works are less about landscape and more about the human figure - especially in historical, classical, and biblical contexts. There also are several copies after paintings by Veronese and Rubens, a few animal studies, an excellent small oil (``Arabs of Oran Resting''), and two landscapes. One of these, ``A Hilly Landscape'' (1855), is every bit as ``modern'' in appearance as Constable's later outdoor studies.
Of particular interest are three small but completely realized compositions, ``Amadis de Gaule Delivers a Damsel from Galpan's Castle'' (1860), ``The Supper at Emmaus'' (1853), and ``Christ on the Sea of Galilee'' (c. 1841). These alone tell us more about Delacroix's working methods than could be learned from any number of lectures and books.
For Delacroix at his purest, however, we must turn to his tiny (8-by-6-in.) oil ``L'elia Mourns over St'enio's Body'' (1847) and to the 1860 ``Tiger Licking its Paw.'' In both, his extraordinary color sense dominates. Without it, the former painting would be a bit too melodramatic and the latter just a moderately interesting animal study.
By and large, this exhibition will probably appeal more to artists and art historians than the general public. In many ways, it is a behind-the-scenes kind of show. The viewer is permitted to observe how the artists went about a variety of tasks, from sketching from life and copying Old Masters, to testing new color relationships and blocking out tentative first versions of important commissioned paintings.
We see what made these artists tick - how they got their effects, planned their masterpieces, studied nature, both indoors and out. In the case of Rubens, we learn how one of the greatest of all artists devised his compositions. In the case of Delacroix, how he translated passion and movement into color. And in the case of Constable, how he transformed the English countryside into powerful landscapes that, from close up, look like nothing so much as mounds of thick be-spattered paint.
For anyone interested in the whys and wherefores of painting, that is more than enough to make this an excellent and worthwhile show.
At the Salander-O'Reilly Galleries through Dec. 30.