OPENING at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday, "Old Master Drawings from the Albertina" is not the sort of splashy show that draws a crowd. These are subtler jewels.
Named for the duke who founded it more than 200 years ago, The Albertina in Vienna houses one of the world's greatest collections of drawings. Although the drawings are so sensitive to light and humidity that they are rarely shown outside their home, The Albertina is temporarily parting with some of its finest examples from the 15th through the 18th century.
Albrecht Durer's "Praying Hands," for example, has left the Albertina for the first time. The gently steepled hands of a devout apostle were a study for an altarpiece (of which only a poor copy remains). Viewing the drawing firsthand, one sees it as something other than the popular religious symbol it has become. It is a masterpiece.
This image forms the centerpiece for an entire room of Durers, from what is considered the finest collection of his drawings in the world. In Durer's "Studies of Hands," we see playing hands -- an intimate view, where the artist studies his own left hand in various positions. Because we assume his viewpoint, we can almost sense his thinking.
But this exhibit of 75 works by 54 masters extends far beyond that great draftsman, to Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Fragonard.
There are Rubens portraits and figure studies by Raphael. One, "Two Studies of Male Nudes," bears an inscription by Durer. (The two exchanged works, but there's no record of what Durer sent Raphael.)
Some of the drawings were preparatory studies for paintings, prints or stained-glass windows. Others obviously were done for practice, for self-teaching and self-exploration.
They're old but not without humor. In "An Elephant," Rembrandt portrays his roly-poly subject with accuracy and the same kind of affection that later inspired the creation of Babar and Dumbo.
And Bruegel the Elder's "Painter and Connoisseur" shows a lively artist's annoyance at a stupid patron leaning over his shoulder; the "connoisseur" stands slack-jawed with his hand in his money pouch.
Through all of these, in charcoal or chalk, or in ink with pen or brush, swift strokes capture the quivering of a lip, the flapping of wings, the flashing of an eye. One comes away believing that the best way to get to know the old masters is to start from scratch.
OLD MASTER DRAWINGS FROM THE ALBERTINA -- In the National Gallery of Art's East Building through January 13.