Draperies in velvety folds, a luminescent eye, silken skin with the hint of bones underneath: all conjured by light and dark lines in ink, chalk, charcoal, watercolors and gouache.
"French Master Drawings from the Rouen Museum," opening Sunday at the National Gallery, is a tour of 250 years of romantic and Romantic works, 110 watercolors and drawings by important if not always well-known French artists from the end of the 16th century through the middle of the 19th.
Works by Watteau, David, Fragonard and Ingres are outnumbered by those of obscure contemporaries and peers: Parrocel? Vien? Houel? The exhibit is spread through five rooms in approximate chronological order, starting with Caron's "Political Allegory With the Figures of Strength and Prudence," done in the 1570s. You may ask to see works in the catalogue that aren't on the walls.
Seventeenth-century "academic" figure studies, concerned with volume, light, mass and classic poses, seem stiff; Simon Vouet's "Study for the 'Gallic Hercules'" is monumental, a marble-like, toga-wrapped figure.Jean-Marc Nattier's "Study for the 'Portrait of the Duc de Chaulnes as Hercules" goes a stilted step further, with a homely duke's head out of synch with the Herculean body.
The 18th-century group, emphasizing French artists who studied in Rome, reflects a move toward a softer feel. Exhibit coordinator Meg Morgan Grasselli points out that Watteau's studies of six heads, capturing ordinary people in various moods, marks a step toward naturalism.
Classical landscapes -- geometric hills sometimes picked up in Rome and adjusted to suit the artist -- were often executed in red chalk, with reclining figures dotting the foreground as if an afterthought. Some works by less familiar artists were chosen for their rarity, quality and relevance to Rouen, such as the wash-and-ink study by Theodore Gericault, a native son, for his famous "The Raft of Medusa." Three drawings by Hubert Robert, whose specialty was imaginary antique ruins, hang alongside three by Jacques-Louis David, experimenting with facial expressions. Ships drawn on sheepskin parchment by Pierre Puget -- perhaps the greatest French sculptor of his day -- may have been included as curiosities, while landscapes of Rouen by Cochin and Paul Huet seem to be included only because they carry out the theme.
FRENCH MASTER DRAWINGS FROM THE ROUEN MUSEUM -- At the National Gallery West Building, Sunday through September 13.