"Old Master Drawings from the Albertina," which goes on view today at the National Gallery of Art, includes a little Rembrandt landscape that connoisseurs would kill for.
Its Rubens of the Virgin ascending into heaven on a cloud of putti will send shivers up your spine.
By putting on display the beautiful original of Albrecht Du rer's "Praying Hands," the Albertina show rescues from cliche'dom one of the best known images in all of Western art.
This remarkable exhibit includes nine other Du rers -- and the Raphael that Raphael sent Du rer as a gift. The sumptuous color catalogue is a Christmas gift par excellence. Its Michelangelo is awesome. Its Fragonards are splendid, so are its Bruegels and its Claude.
The Albertina show, in short, would be a blockbuster if these brilliant sheets from Vienna were not drawings.
Drawings are to paintings as string quartets are to symphonies. Drawings seem out of place in crowds and fancy installations. Most are rather small, few are highly colored. They are so delicate that they must be shown in carefully dimmed light.
Still, loving them is easy. Fine old-master drawings have strong and subtle virtues. They are often less affected, more telling and spontaneous than paintings. And they offer revelations. They show the artist's instincts, the movements of his hand and the workings of his mind. There are viewers in this city who have learned, who have been taught, that there is nothing nicer than an intelligent assemblage of old-master drawings. The Albertina exhibition -- 15 years in preparation -- is as good as such shows get.
Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen (1738-1822) -- who left his name and his collection to the Albertina, his palatial house in Vienna -- spent his last years alone among his 13,000 works of graphic art. He was well into his eighties, "a thin old man in a white Empire wig, blue coat and high boots, with a benevolent face and with tired, sad eyes, who walked through his rooms alone followed by a little white dog," a contemporary observed. The duke had spent a fortune on prints and master drawings. The fortune belonged to his wife, Marie Christine.
Her mother, Maria Theresa, was the Empress of Austria. Marie Christine's sister, Marie Antoinette, was the queen of France. Between 1792 and 1811, while the Imperial court was spending 101,882 florins on its ambitious art collection, Albert and his wife were spending 10 times that amount, 1,265,992 florins, "an exorbitant sum," notes the catalogue, "even by today's standards."
Duke Albert and his wife sought out the best objects from the best collections. Their mission, Albert wrote, was to "cultivate the happiness of all peoples" by forging a collection "which serves higher ends than others do." The old duke was a connoisseur. The collection he assembled is particularly rich in Du rers, Rembrandts, Rubenses and -- thanks to Marie Antoinette, who gave them to her sister -- in luscious Fragonards. All of these great masters are well represented in the present show.
Until rather recently, fine old-master drawings were regarded as relatively cheap. But this is true no longer. Single handsome sheets by Raphael and Holbein, both from the collection of the dukes of Devonshire, when auctioned off last summer fetched nearly $2 million apiece. Objects of such quality are not at all uncommon in the Albertina.
The exhibition opens, as it closes, with a gallery of 10 Du rers. The lucky viewer is required to stroll among them twice, first when entering, and then again when leaving, the Albertina show.
The master's "Praying Hands" of 1508, that pious steeple of a masterpiece, is the most famous. Du rer used a pointed brush, and black ink and white paint, when he did the drawing on a sheet of blue paper. Something in the way those little fingers touch is as tenuous and touching as prayer itself.
Two other Du rers here -- one a study of drapery, the other a grand portrait of a bald-headed apostle, both done on blue paper and dated 1508 -- are comparably finished. But even more instructive are two drawings of horses done 20 years apart. The first, the "Knight on Horseback," dated 1498, is certainly a study for "Knight, Death and the Devil," one of Du rer's finest prints. The second, "The Italian Trophies," was drawn in 1518. Here the master's lines are swift and sure and free; his pen fairly flies.
It is the range of such drawings that holds this show together. The Gallery's Andrew Robison, who picked the sheets displayed, chose finished works and free ones, brushed drawings and chalked ones, imaginary scenes "In many towns," says J. Carter Brown, "the public has a prejudice against old master drawings." That is not true here. and others done from life. His drawings share high quality as well as catholicity, but his Albertina show has no overriding theme.
It doesn't need one. Each of its choice drawings is a delicate and subtle little world unto itself. Each viewer will, no doubt, select his own favorites. Here are six of mine:
*Catalogue No. 30: Rembrandt's "Landscape With a Drawbridge." The day is bright but overcast, a canal mirrors sky. A small duck flaps its wings. Rembrandt's pen is as active. One squiggle becomes reeds. One long fish-hooked line describes the far edge of the road. A few subtle touches indicate a distant plain and a far horizon. The trees at right are dry-brushed. Beneath the floating boats, lightly brushed wash makes the brimming water shine.
*Catalogue No. 22: "The Carrying of the Cross," a drawing by an anonymous Netherlandish master from the fourth quarter of the 15th century. A miracle has taken place. Veronica's veil, with which she wiped the brow of Jesus, has just taken on the image of the Christ. An inexplicable white space surrounds her kneeling figure. Although the scholar Erwin Panofsky believed the work unfinished and suggested that that space had been set aside for a group of the Three Marys, modern eyes might see the miracle occurring in that blaze of white light.
*Catalogue No. 24: "Spring" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565. It would take an hour to describe all that's going on in this extraordinary drawing -- the lady with her lap dog, the shepherds clipping sheep, the necking couples on the lawn, the musicians and the feast, the castle and the little bridge, the dovecote and the wild geese, and the ship that's heeling over in a fair sea breeze.
*Catalogue No. 35: Peter Paul Rubens' "The Assumption of the Virgin," circa 1614. She rises into light on a cloud of floating babies. The drawing of the putti -- the way their plump bodies blend into one another, their faces and foreshortenings -- are enough to justify a visit to the show.
*Catalogue No. 48: "Seated Male Nude" by Michelangelo, 1511. Rubens owned this stunning, finely finished, rare two-sided drawing done in red chalks heightened with white. The figure is remarkable. Look at the highlights on his knee.
*Catalogue No. 67. Claude Lorrain's "Tiber Landscape With Rocky Promontory," 1640. The colored washes of this drawing suggest trees and rushing clouds, rocks and distant hills, and the dark before a storm. We read the space and light with ease, and yet the drawing shows no detail. It is almost entirely abstract.
This list might be much longer. The Poussin and the Fragonards, the Annibale Carracci, the Cranach, the Pordenone and the Parmigianino are comparably fine. Chalk, charcoal, dry brush, wet brush, silverpoint and pen -- Robison's selection allows us to explore all the media of drawing. He's picked finished works and sketches. A number are anonymous. But Raphael's "Two Studies of Male Nudes," the picture he sent Du rer "to illustrate his hand," bears the glow of its connection to those two immortal masters. (No one has recovered the drawing Du rer sent to Raphael to show how well he drew.)
The Albertina's drawing collection ranks with those of the Uffizi, the Louvre, the British Museum, the Met. It is among the finest in the world. The Austrian authorities did not send us all we might have wished -- their only Leonardo and Du rer's famous rabbit, for instance, stayed in Vienna -- but the drawings they did lend are among the best they own. Their quality is very high.
Washingtonians can tell. They can tell because the art museums of this city, the National Gallery particularly, have been teaching us good lessons in drawing connoisseurship. More than 15 years have passed since Annemarie Pope of Washington's International Exhibitions Foundation first wrote the Albertina asking for a show. Many of the artists in the present exhibition have since then been awarded solo exhibitions at the National Gallery. A grand Du rer show was mounted there by Gil Ravenal in 1971; Christopher White organized a Rembrandt exhibition in 1973; and Diane Bohlen's Carracci show opened in 1979. Grien (1981), Piazzetta (1983), Tiepolo (1972), Claude (1982), Watteau (1984), Correggio (1984), Boucher (1973), Fragonard and Robert (1978) have also been the subjects of one-man graphics exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art.
"In many towns," says J. Carter Brown, the Gallery's director, "the public has a prejudice against old-master drawings."
That is not true here.
In 1884, Benjamin Franklin made America's first diplomatic overtures to the government of Austria. The present exhibition -- funded by the United Technologies Corporation -- marks that bicentennial. It will travel to the Pierpont Morgan Library, Manhattan, after closing here Jan. 13.