Grand drawing shows, like drugs, are insidious. They turn their viewers into addicts. "Du rer to Delacroix: Great Master Drawings From Stockholm," which goes on view today at the National Gallery of Art, is one such exhibition. It intensifies the craving.
The present exhibition, on display in the West Building, is the latest in a series. Because many of its masters -- Du rer, Rembrandt, Hans Baldung Grien, Jacques Callot, Hugo Robert, Fragonard, Watteau, Claude Lorrain and Leonardo -- have had monographic shows here, we greet their sheets from Stockholm as we might old friends. The spirit of this themeless show also is familiar, for other grand collections -- Vienna's Albertina, Milan's Ambrosiana, Budapest and Chatsworth and the Art Institute of Chicago -- have lent us grand selections of their Old Master drawings in the past few years.
No drawing show in Washington is likely soon to equal the Albertina exhibition mounted here last year. The Swedish Nationalmuseum has much smaller holdings, fewer than 10,000 sheets, but the finest on view -- the Domenico Ghirlandaio, the Rembrandts and Watteaus -- are from the same exalted league.
Sweet memories of many sorts enrich the exhibition. The Raphael, "The Ascension of the Virgin" (circa 1510), with its many floating angels, recalls Rubens' even grander treatment of the same theme in the Albertina show. The two fine steeds, one stumbling, in a 1517 drawing here -- it may be by Leonardo, opinion is divided -- evoke the many Leonardo horses sent to us from Windsor earlier this year.
There is a wonderous red chalk Rembrandt, circa 1630, that is even more familiar. It shows a fine old man, somber, balding, bearded, leaning forward in his chair. Though we do not know his name, we have seen his face before. He posed often for young Rembrandt, and also for his pals. Two drawings of the same man -- one by Rembrandt, the other by Jan Lievens (1607-1674) -- were included in a show of "Dutch Figure Drawings" at the National Gallery in 1982.
Such drawings are seductive. Unlike Old Master paintings, which tend to sing out boldly, Old Master drawings whisper. Glimpsed first from across the room they are little more than small gray squares. One must approach them closely, and savor each in turn, and lend one's full attention. Few were made for public exhibition. Most are sketches, studies, explorations. In the best of them we feel not the artist's bows to fashion, but the workings of his mind.
Per Bjurstro m, the distinguished connoisseur who serves as the director of the Nationalmuseum, is the scholar most responsible for the Stockholm show.
"The first collection of drawings of any consequence in Sweden," writes Bjurstro m, "belonged to Queen Christina (1626-1689) . . . It included individual volumes of drawings by Raphael and Michelangelo and renderings of 'antiques' by Hendrik Goltzius." She owned perhaps as many as 2,500 drawings.
"They were acquired," he adds, "as those things were done in the 17th century -- with the help of her armies."
The queen was, shall we say, not easy to put up with. She mistreated her chancellors, spent Sweden's money wildly and took on many lovers until, in 1654, she gave up the throne, converted to Catholicism and left her native land for Rome.
She took her drawings with her and sold them when she needed money, as she did increasingly. By the time she died in poverty, all had been dispersed.
Three sheets that she might have owned -- one by Lorrain, a sweet drawing of cattle; one by Pier Francesco Mola, "Self-Portrait as an Alchemist"; and Salvator Rosa's "Study for the Philosopher's Grove" -- are included in the show, but no thanks to the queen. All were purchased in the past 20 years.
Many other sheets displayed -- the Pietro da Cortona, the Stefano della Bella, the Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, all three of its Hugo Roberts and both its Fragonards -- also are recent acquisitions.
"Our collection," observes Bjurstro m, "is an old collection -- but an old collection still alive."
It was another profligate, Carl Gustaf Tessin (1695-1770), a diplomat and nobleman, who bought the most impressive drawings on display.
Tessin served in Vienna, in Venice and in Paris, and everywhere he went he paused to purchase drawings. "He collected avidly," notes Bjurstro m, "bringing himself to the verge of financial ruin." In one month, April 1741, he bought 2,057 sheets. Of the 118 objects in the present exhibition, more than 50 once were his. Among them are the Raphael, the Leonardo, both Callots, both Poussins, three Rubenses, two van Dycks, and no fewer than eight Rembrandts.
Those Rembrandts are perhaps the greatest glory of this show. The smallest, "Woman Suckling a Child," might have been completed in half a dozen seconds. The largest, "The Arrest of Christ" (circa 1659), is a work of monumental grandeur. Its Jesus seems to glow.
When Tessin bought these objects, Rembrandts, Bjurstro m writes, were still "surprisingly cheap." At auction in Paris the diplomat acquired "106 drawings by Rembrandt and his school for which he paid 55 livres." That was less, adds Bjurstro m, "than he might have spent for a single sheet by Bouchardon," an artist then the rage.
He was just as perspicacious when it came to the French masters. He bought Poussins and Bouchers, and became a close friend of Watteau's. Scholars disagree about the authorship of almost all the drawings now assigned to Chardin. But of the very few that are generally accepted, three are in Stockholm. Tessin bought them all.
Tessin is not the only character to come to life again among the objects in this show. Agostino Tassi is another. His "chief claim to fame," notes the catalogue, is that he was Lorrain's first master. But something else intrigues us here. The Tassi on display (it, too, was bought by Tessin) is a drawing of ships in harbor. What makes the picture notable is the suprising care with which their rigging is described. Tassi, it turns out, "served a sentence for some unknown crime on the Tuscan galleys." No wonder he looked closely at every spar and block.
Jacques Bellange (active 1600-1616) is another far-from-famous artist whose works were bought by Tessin. "A mysterious figure," notes the catalogue. "There is even reason to suspect that he may have been burnt as a magician."
Melchior Lorck, who is represented by "Eight Women of Lu beck, Pomerania and Danzig" (circa 1567), an odd, surreal sheet, is comparably mysterious. The catalogue describes him as "a poet, explorer, ethnographic writer, cartographer, painter, draughtsman, engraver, designer of woodcuts, architect and goldsmith." For a while he lived in Turkey. He died somewhere in the Gold Coast. What took him to Africa, the catalogue does not say.
One leaves this show remembering certain splendid objects that, for one reason or another, leap out to penetrate the memory. Domenico Ghirlandaio's "Head of an Old Man," a portrait done in silverpoint on pink prepared paper, is among the most impressive. The subject is unforgettable (the man has a deformed nose and is either dead or fast asleep), and so, too, is its mount. The drawing was once owned by Giorgio Vasari, who surrounded its strange head with goddesses and nymphs.
The Goltzius is just as fine. It shows "Three Fantastic Figures," alchemists, astrologers or perhaps magicians. The wall behind their grotesque yet lifelike heads bears a set of cabalistic symbols that have never been deciphered.
"Face of a Humanist or Philosopher, The Right Hand Raised in a Gesture of Invitation," a drawing from the 1780s by Johann Heinrich Fussli (called Fuseli in England) is intimidating, too. Its visage makes the viewer jump. That gesture suggests many things, but hardly invitation.
The Rubenses and van Dycks by themselves would justify a visit to the show. It closes with a group of Swedish drawings (there are more than 40,000 in the Nationalmuseum). A grant of $100,000 from Volvo North America helped pay for the exhibition, which will travel to Fort Worth and San Francisco after closing here Jan. 5.