WITH little fanfare, the Frick Collection here has mounted a first-rate exhibition of watercolors and drawings by the celebrated English satirist Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827). Forty international collections, both public and private, provided the 84 works on view in the lower-level galleries of the Frick.
Among them are a number of Rowlandson's famous satiric compositions as well as several broadly executed caricatures of his contemporaries.
Also on display are a handful of charming landscapes that should take many visitors by surprise; some fine studies of horses and nudes; and a selection of portraits of well-known social and political figures.
They were assembled by Dr. John Hayes, director of London's National Portrait Gallery, who both served as curator for the exhibition and wrote the text for its excellent, profusely illustrated catalog.
Although Rowlandson has long been admired for his flamboyantly executed watercolor and ink depictions of some of the rowdier aspects of English life (many of which, however, were as exquisitely drawn as they were cleverly composed), he has only recently been acknowledged as one of England's finest draftsmen.
Because the exhibition underscores this aspect of his genius, it will cause many American viewers to reconsider much of what they know about this delightfully witty and often wicked satirist of English - and occasionally French - society.
Having seen only a few originals (reproductions seldom do his work justice since most fail to indicate the subtleties of his washes and the refinement of his line), I was never really aware of how beautifully he could draw. That was my first surprise.
The second had to do with his compositional abilities. Very few artists could have carried off so complex a composition as ``Skaters on the Serpentine,'' for instance, with its dozens of figures moving in and out without making the work appear clumsy or overcrowded.
My third surprise was the gentleness of his landscapes.
One might expect a satirist and caricaturist to relax a bit while sketching hills, forests, and streams, but Rowlandson's landscape studies took me completely by surprise.
They are open and expansive; they include such subtle atmosphere effects that one might assume the artist to have had a gently romantic creative disposition rather than a sharply satiric one.
``View of Knaresborough, Yorkshire,'' is a good example, as is ``Entrance to Festiniog, Wales.'' Although executed in a controlled linear style, with strategically placed washes of delicate color, their overall effect is marvelously free and spontaneous.
Painted close to or shortly after 1800 (``Delabole Slate Quarry'' was painted after 1808), his scenic views occasionally hint at what would soon develop in English landscape painting (thanks to Constable and Turner), yet they remain firmly embedded within mid-18th-century notions of how to depict the countryside.
As one would expect, however, the bulk of the show is devoted to Rowlandson's satiric jibes at English life and manners.
His subjects range from the sporting life (``A Gaming Table at Devonshire House,'' ``Henry Angelo's Fencing Academy'') and sporting events (``Neck and Neck: A Dead Heat''), to more general targets (``A Meeting of Creditors,'' ``Box Lobby Loungers'').
At times his barbs are very specific (``Frederick the Great and one of his Guardsmen''), at other times, broadly dispersed (``Vauxhall Gardens''). Some of them are aimed at the relationship of the sexes or at human foibles in general, as can be seen in ``The Lady Wins'' and ``Exhibition `Stare-Case''' respectively.
Unlike Hogarth, another great English satirist, Rowlandson directed his barbs more at manners than morals. There is little, if any, anger in his work, and even his caricatures - broad as they are - are designed to create merriment rather than incite change.
One senses that Rowlandson was in secret sympathy with his subjects. He may have poked fun at them and delighted in their often peculiar or ridiculous antics, but he never felt superior to them nor necessarily any wiser.
Another quality that sets his work apart is the delicacy of touch. This is a rather surprising attribute for a satirist, although Lautrec, roughly a century later, was also able to be both tender and penetrating. Rowlandson, however, tended to keep this side of his temperament in check.
With a few exceptions, usually his one- or two-figure studies, his finesse is revealed in details - the execution of a hand, or the way a horse's head is rendered.
After its closing at the Frick Collection on April 8, this exhibition travels to the Frick Art Museum in Pittsburgh (April 21-June 3), and then to the Baltimore Museum of Art (June 23-Aug. 5).