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by Paul Jeromack
It doesn’t matter if one collects Faberge or Fiestaware -- while it’s nice to buy one piece, buying in bulk is better. Until recently, it was still possible to buy Old Master drawings that way: Witness the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s romp through the 1972 sale at Sotheby’s of the Ellesmere Collection of drawings by the Carracci, and the J. Paul Getty Trust vacuuming up the majority of the drawings sold at Christie’s in 1984 by the Duke of Devonshire to maintain Chatsworth, his 17th-century mansion in Devon. More recently, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art cherry-picked five of the most beautiful Italian drawings from the sale of the Jeffrey E. Horvitz collection of Italian drawings at Sotheby’s in January 2008 [see "January Old Masters 2008," Jan. 31, 2008].

Two American museums have made similar coups privately: the Wolfgang Ratjen collection of Italian and German drawings from the 16th through 19th centuries was bought by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., for a reported $23 million-$24 million; and 16 drawings by Claude Lorrain from the Peter Sharp collection were acquired by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. The Claude drawings were recently on view in a special exhibition at the Clark, Jan. 19-Apr. 20, 2008.

The Clark’s purchase is in some ways the more surprising. While the museum is celebrated for its extraordinary Impressionist and American pictures, its remarkably fine drawings collection is still little known, and the Clark is not considered a major purchaser of works on paper. And while it is uncommon for any museum to buy Old Master drawings en masse, it is rarer still for a museum to buy a group of drawings by a single artist -- the only comparable example in recent years is the Getty’s purchase of Federico Zuccaro’s series of 21 drawings of "The Life of Taddeo Zuccaro" in 1999.

One of the greatest and most influential landscape painters, Claude Lorrain (1600-82) made his life and career in Rome. His serene and soothing vistas -- landscapes and harbors -- augmented by small figures of mythological or religious subjects are sensitively rendered and caressed in the soft light of an early Roman evening. Though Claude’s paintings are not as popular today as they were in the 17th and 18th centuries, his mastery of rendering light in landscape was revered by generations of artists ranging from Vernet and Corot in France, Friedrich in Germany, Thomas Cole in America and most notably in England, where Claude’s most passionate admirers included Constable and Turner.

Claude’s classical imaginings were based, like those of his compatriot and friend Nicholas Poussin, on rigorous, direct observation of the landscape and livestock of the Roman campagna (it is known that the two friends went to the countryside together on sketching jaunts). In pen and wash, Claude’s free and fresh sketches were utilized back in his studio into finished working compositional sheets often lined for perspective.

Unlike Poussin (and 99.99 percent of any painters of any period), Claude retained most of his drawings from 1635 on -- he gave away no more than a handful of them in his 80-odd years. He kept all his sketchbooks, and as a precaution against fakers and contemporary imitators he kept a drawn record of all his finished paintings, which is known as the "Liber Veritatis" (the Book of Truth) and typically annotated as to each picture’s client.

After Claude’s death, his drawings were left to his nephews and daughter, who assembled them into albums for sale. The obsessively art-loving Queen Christina of Sweden, then living in Rome, bought several, selling some off to her friend Prince Livio Odelscalchi, whose ancestors had been patrons of Claude. From the Odescalchi, albums were dismembered and scatted with large groups finding homes at the Louvre and the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, while the Liber Veritatis was sold intact to the Duke of Devonshire from whom the British Museum acquired it in 1957.

In the late 1950s, a previously unrecorded Claude album turned up with London dealer Hans Calmann who, after selling a number of sheets privately, sold the 60-drawing album (as complete) to Georges Wildenstein. As the drawings had been kept out of light for the previous three and a half centuries, they were in exceptionally bright, fresh condition. Hailed as one of the most important Old Master drawing discoveries of the decade, the "Wildenstein album" was published in facsimile and sold to the omnivorous Norton Simon in 1968, who unbound it for its exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1971.

In the early 1980s, Simon sold half of the album to the London dealer Agnew’s (the other 30 remain at the Simon to this day). Thirteen of the finest were bought by Peter J. Sharp, the Manhattan real estate mogul best known as the owner of the Carlyle Hotel but also for his small but fine collection of 17th-century Italian Old Master paintings. Sharp added three more Claudes to the group, including a very fine View of Lake Bracciano that had previously belonged to Sir Kenneth Clark.

After Sharp’s unexpectedly early death in 1992, his Old Master paintings were sold but his family retained his drawings, including the Claudes. Though there was interest from various collectors and museums in buying individual sheets, the family was adamant that the Claudes be kept together and sold as a group for a price quoted as between $4.5 million and $5 million. This requirement took nearly all American museums with extensive Claude holdings -- including the Metropolitan, the National Gallery and the Art Institute of Chicago -- out of the running, and the J. Paul Getty Museum (the most plausible candidate) had no interest in them.

According to Richard Rand, senior curator of European paintings and drawings at the Clark, "In April of 2007, we had just come off our big loan show of Claude drawings from the British Museum, and in June, the Manton Foundation donated its collection of British 18th- and early-19th-century paintings, sketches, watercolors and drawings by mostly Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, all of whom looked to Claude as a mentor. François Bourne and Adriaen Eles had the Claudes on consignment from the Sharp family and when they contacted us, the group seemed very seemed much in character with the Clark, which has several artists represented in some depth, notably Renoir, Degas and Winslow Homer. We already have two paintings by Claude in the collection, and with the Manton collection, the drawings fit in perfect context here."

Though the deal was made final last summer for a price somewhere in the area of $3 million-$4 million, the recent exhibition was the drawings first showing since their acquisition -- and perhaps a taste to come of a more aggressive Clark acquisition policy for Old Master drawings of all kinds.

PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.