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    Five Centuries of Excellence
by Fred Stern
Hans Holebein the Elder (?)
Portrait of the Artist's Sons (?)
ca. 1514
Nicolas Poussin
Francesco Primaticcio
Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto
Aelbert Cuyp
Houses and Carriages Along a Riverbank
Pablo Picasso
Man with Arms Crossed
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Franz Marc
The Red Bull
Henri Matisse
Slavic Blouse
Henri Matisse
Turkish Woman
Pablo Picasso
Woman with Mallorca
ca. 1905
Vincent van Gogh
A Girl
Paul Klee
Masks on the Meadow
ca. 1920
Sonia Delaunay
Trans-Siberian Express
ca. 1913
Guido Reni
Two Studies of a Mule
"Master Drawings from the Hermitage and Pushkin Museums," Sept. 25, 1998-Jan. 10, 1999, at the Morgan Library, 29 East 36th Street, New York, N.Y. 10016.

Set aside a few pleasurable hours for your first view of an amazing Russian treasure -- drawings from the Hermitage and Pushkin museums -- at the Morgan Library in New York. Never before have these West European drawings been in the city, and only a gigantic grant from J.P.Morgan & Co, Inc, made it happen.

The drawing collection (40,000 sheets) at the Hermitage goes back to the days of Catherine the Great, who reigned between 1762-1796. She loved drawings perhaps even more than paintings. Contemporaries of the Czarina write that she selected drawings brought to her private quarters so she could peruse them at her leisure, savoring their message of beauty and serenity.

In 1768 she ordered her emissary in the Austrian Netherlands, Dimitrii Golitzyn, to acquire a collection of 4,000 Western European drawings and sketches belonging to Count Cobenzl, minister to Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria. A year later, l4 albums of prints and drawings were also acquired from Count Heinrich Bruehl of Dresden, a minister at the Saxonian court.

Of the 75 Hermitage drawings at the Morgan, 32 come from the Count Cobenzl and Count Bruehl purchases. Among these is the Portrait of the Artist's Sons, a silver point on prepared paper, probably by their father Hans Holbein the Elder (l460/65-l534). The drawing shows a dwarf and two young men wearing flat caps, superimposed on a view of the city of Augsburg in Southern Germany. Elegantly coifed and staring into each other's eyes, they appear to be modeled after Italian portraits of the time.

The Nicholas Poussin (l594-l665) drawing of Baptism is one of four extant sketches for a painting of the same subject. In this drawing, two groups are gathered around a small pond, the ruins of a Roman temple in the background. In the painting at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, the groups all face the baptismal scene, Christ kneels, and the barren area near the ruins is peopled.

Francesco Primaticcio's (1504-l570) preparatory drawing for a vaulted ceiling of the Gallery d'Ulysse in the palace of the French king, Francois I at Fontainebleu, shows the triumvirate of Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto. Primaticcio has a unique ability to show the male form from all angles, and in particular the muscular structure of the broad backs and the angularity of the arms and shoulders.

Albert Cuyp (l620-l69l), the famous Dutch landscape painter, provides a delightful House and Carriages Along a Riverbank. The sheet, in black chalk and yellow green wash, is from Cuyp's early period. It is highly sophisticated in its handling of twilight, with the bridge and the figures in the foreground beginning to darken. The houses are sharply delineated and convey the prosperity of their owners.

A Jacob Jordaens (l593-l678) crucifixion, primarily in watercolor and brown wash is an ambitious work for the artist, who was then quite young. The quick sketch of the figures surrounding the cross is simple shorthand for later, more intensive styling. The legend around the base indicates that the sheets were used as cartoons for a hanging or tapestry, now lost or never completed.

The Descent of the Holy Spirit by Anthony van Dyck (l590-l64l) is one of an entire series of sketches he prepared for each major painting. By seeing each sketch to completion, he was able to visualize how the finished painting might look, and he could also combine elements from the various sketches to arrive at an ideal setting. In the sketch, the disciples are gathered around Jesus while the Holy Spirit descends from a brightly lit sky, flooding the table below with its iridescence.

While the Hermitage collections grew mostly through donations of collections by the Czars and other members of the aristocracy, some donations were of a more private nature. Shchukin the wealthy Moscow magnate donated many of the museum's French paintings, including a 1909 Picasso drawing, Man with Arms Crossed done in charcoal, ink watercolor and gouache. We can begin to see the developing cubist style in Picasso's works. The image is divided into independent planes reminiscent of stained glass. The eyes are closed and the facial expression owes something to the Picasso oils of the period, especially to Woman with a Mandolin.

Another private gift was Morozov's Breakfast by Toulouse-Lautrec. A preparatory drawing for a lithograph in the album Elles in l896, it depicts a friend's mistress being served breakfast in bed by a forbidding older woman. Whether it was intended to show a brothel scene or depict a more bourgeois, domestic setting is hard to determine. The drawing is very evocative of three of the five elements - smell, taste and touch.

The history of the Pushkin Museum of Moscow presents a different story. To begin with, it is not as old as the Hermitage. It acquired its first collection of drawings and prints in l841. Though it has a much smaller holding of drawings -- just over 20,000 -- it can nevertheless hold its own with the older Hermitage. Proud Muscovites and wealthy merchants were the donors to the Pushkin, as were private collectors such as the writer Ilya Ehrenburg. Ehrenburg donated his collection of 45 Picasso prints as well as drawings by Leger, Grosz and Matisse.

The Red Bull by Franz Marc (l880-1916) is an icon of expressionism. Simplicity of form and expression of color distinguish this tempera on cardboard work from l9l2.

Lydia Delektorskaya, Matisse's secretary and occasional model, donated Matisse drawings to the Pushkin including the beautiful Slavic Blouse of l936. A number of models posed in Slavic blouses for Matisse. He loved the decorative designs of these peasant blouses and contrasted them with the glowing young faces of his models. The pen and ink drawings occupied him on and off until l940.

Equally impressive is the Turkish Woman of l942, a charcoal drawing of a woman in a voluminous but undecorated blouse. Delektorskaya discussed Matisse's use of charcoal, "This work was to serve as a springboard, which, through his excitement and observations of the model over several sessions, would allow express his inspiration fully in quick contour drawing ...and fire him up."

Picasso's Woman from Mallorca, a famous watercolor of a woman in Picasso's early Family of Saltimbanques was Shchukin's gift to the museum forerunner to the Pushkin. The drawing is based on religious processions Picasso must have seen in Barcelona. The model wears a Mallorcan hat with a scarf-like veil descending from the top. The image is also reminiscent of Greek Tanagra, popular at the time in Paris.

The exhibition also includes Vincent van Gogh's drawing of A Girl (1888), purchased by the Pushkin at the Emile sale in l908. Painted in Arles, van Gogh proudly wrote his brother: "Do you know who Mousmé are? Well I have painted such a took me all week -- I couldn't work on anything else...A Mousmé is a Japanese, or in this case a Provençal girl twelve to l4 years old." The slim dark-haired model wears traditional Provençal attire, her pouting small lips and glossy eyes look pensive, perhaps a sign of her introspection.

Masks on the Meadow is a delightful drawing from Paul Klee's Bauhaus years (around l920), his most productive period. In this work the six stick-like figures resemble puppets taking a curtain call. There are two other drawings in the Pushkin's Klee collection, but this is the only one that made it to the Morgan exhibition.

Sonia Delaunay's remarkable Trans-Siberian Express (ca. 1913) is composed of a 1913 poem by Blaise Cendrars, and Delaunay's own painting inspired by the poem. The French and Russian avant-garde refered to such a work as a "simultaneous book," a medium that blended words with shapes and colors, to be "read" all together. The poem is based on Cendrars' travels through Russia by train, signified in the piece by a small map of the Trans-Siberian route.

The Pushkin is not just a repository for relatively contemporary art. It has a brilliant pen and ink drawing (with a verso) over black chalk by Vittore Carpaccio (l460/65-1526), A Philosopher in his Study (ca. 1500). In addition, a Guido Reni (l575-l642) sketch of a mule delights with its freshness, compassion and deep understanding.

Spread your viewing over two visits and by all means bring a magnifying glass, there are so many details to see and ponder.

FRED STERN is a New York art writer.