THE PERSONALITY of the private collector pervades a strong and varied assemblage of 100 drawings that opens Sunday at the National Gallery of Art's print and drawing galleries. The works in "Master Drawings from Titian to Picasso: The Curtis O. Baer Collection" span the 15th to the 20th centuries and include some of art's biggest Big Names -- Rembrandt, Degas, Matisse, Renoir, -- side-by-side with literally No-Name artists.
Loosely grouped in national and chronological order, some of the drawings are finished works, others are sketches or studies that would later become paintings or sculpture. It is the late Baer's perspicacity and taste that unify this exhibition.
The epitome of the inspired amateur, businessman Baer, partner in a New York import-export firm, became a self-made connoisseur of drawings but never drew up a formal plan of action for his collection. Instead, as he notes in his forward to the exhibition catalogue, most of his drawings, which he referred to as "guests" in his home, were "love at first sight" or "single hand-to-mouth decisions."
Baer was most interested in delicate, personal works, with a special fondness for landscapes and animals. There is a remarkable variety in the drawing styles: the deceptive spontaneity of Matisse's line drawing of a young woman; the painstaking lighting effects created with white heightening in Giovanni Battista Piazzetta's "A Young Man Embracing a Girl." There is also work that seems too original in technique to be called "drawing," such as novelist Victor Hugo's two miniature romantic scenes in midnight- black ink wash, begun with random ink spills, finished with a matchstick and incorporating the artist's fingerprint into the design.
Though most of these images are placid and pastoral, several works contain high drama. "Two Men Gesticulating Over the Body of a Third" -- a study in brown ink with brown wash by Salvator Rosa -- depicts the dismay of two men upon discovering what may be a corpse. Honor,e Daumier created a macabre, cartoonish sketch called "The Watch by the Deathbed," with a sinister grinning figure seated at the foot of an old man's bed. And Vasily Kandinsky's "Flying Dragon" is a bold protoplasmic shape that looks as though it's caught in a tickertape parade. Oddly, even in stark black-and-white this drawing seems colorful, like Kandinsky's canvases.
There are also several strong, dramatic faces here, including a grandly heroic "Head of Hercules" by Peter Paul Rubens, boldly drawn from a statue Rubens admired while studying in Rome; and Max Beckmann's forceful charcoal portrait study of a severe- looking Dr. Helmut Lutjens (a friend of Baer's who studied art history with him). Beckmann is also represented by his "Vogelspiel (Birdplay)" in which a strange group of oversized birds is entertaining (or mocking) a group of oddly small-headed native women.
Perhaps the most memorable image -- and one that seems to embody all the characteristic delicacy and fluency of Baer's collection -- is Jacob van Ruisdael's "The Ruined Cottage," in which a simple collapsed shack becomes an allegory for decay and the forces of nature.
MASTER DRAWINGS FROM TITIAN TO PICASSO: THE CURTIS O. BAER COLLECTION -- At the National Gallery of Art ground floor galleries, opening Sunday through October 6.