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by N.F. Karlins
French drawings from the 19th century abound in the permanent collections of both the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Now these Baltimore institutions have joined together in presenting a two-venue show of about 150 works titled "The Essence of Line: French Drawings from Ingres to Degas."

The two museums freely swapped works for the show. Preparatory drawings, studies and a variety of experimental works are at the Walters while, a short cab ride away, more finished and market-oriented sheets are at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

One of the stars is Degas, whose two drawings of ballet dancers -- one at the Walters Art Gallery and one at the Baltimore Museum of Art -- expose the awkward humanity that hides behind the exquisite perfection of performance. Another is Daumier, whose series of satiric and more straightforward sheets chronicle a large section of French society. But a single important circus drawing by Toulouse-Lautrec almost steals the show, and a host of bit players do some remarkable turns.

Several Degas drawings in addition to the ballerinas, including an almost life-size Head of a Roman Girl (1856), prove that this artist was destined always to produce something intriguing. When Degas drew the Roman girl in chalk, he had only been to art school for two years and was just starting a pivotal three-year period of study in Italy, yet the classical and contemporary already coexist comfortably in this work.

In Daumierís The Omnibus (1864), the row of 19th-century "commuters" doesnít seem that different than what one might glimpse on the IRT, except for the clothes. In addition to exploring such types, Daumier penetrates further into the human heart in The Good Friends (ca. 1864). Two middle class men share a drink on a terrace. One looks intensely at the speaker, who seems to be in the midst of sharing something solemn and secret. Daumierís jittery line creates added tension.

Toulouse-Lautrecís At the Circus: Free Horses (1899) is made up of deft strokes and scribbles of black and colored chalks. The psychosexual content bumps the work firmly into the 20th century. Physically disabled early in life, the aristocratic Toulouse-Lautrec reveled in the low life of Paris, exerting control over his environment by drawing it. At the Circus is one of 39 late drawings on this theme, another of the artistís recurring subjects. The artist executed them to prove that he had recovered sufficiently from acute alcoholism to leave a mental hospital.

At the Circus pictures a rehearsal in which the ringmaster bows as three horses rear up, while a fourth is led away. Talk about role reversals! The dominant male is no longer ringmaster, but appears exhausted, his whips drooping, while the horses prance around him. The phallic headdresses on the horses and the snapping, whip-like tail of the horse leaving the ring reiterate the theme. Toulouse-Lautrec did gain his release from the hospital, but his dissipation caused his death two short years later, at not quite 37 years of age.

Sometimes a less-than-first-rate artist creates a first-rate picture. Thatís the case with several draughtsmen in the show. Léon Bonvin (1834-1866), the brother of realist artist François, supplies one radiant example. Léon Bonvin spent most of his life trying to run a tavern to support his wife and several children in a rural village southwest of Paris. He had little formal training, but that shortcoming doesnít show in Cook with Red Apron, a watercolor with gouache and ink over pencil from 1862. His wife stands in her brilliant apron before a still life of vegetables, a more usual subject for Bonvin. This drawing, one of several by him in the show, is just terrific.

Famous in its time was a lithograph The Nocturnal Review by Denis-Auguste-Marie Raffet. It kept alive nostalgia for Napoleon during the reign of Louis Philippe (1830-1848), but in a creepy way. In both the litho and the watercolor and gouache over chalk version that Raffet subsequently made, Napoleon is resurrected and leads a ghostly host of cuirassiers. Itís haunting and unnerving in a 19th-century manner.

If one is looking for more 20th-century angst, a better-known artist, Odilon Redon, supplies it with The Eye (Vision) from 1882. Made of various charcoals, The Eye looks firmly toward the future and the Surrealists.

A catalogue with in-depth entries on about 100 works accompanies "The Essence of Line," and offers insights into studies with exuberant mark-making by Delacroix, a drawing for a print by Mary Cassatt, and an action-packed tiger hunt by Antoine-Louis Barye, among other delights.

While looking at a drawing online is never the same as seeing one in person, a new database offers digital access to roughly 900 Walters/BMA drawings, including all the works in this star-studded exhibition at It can be searched by favorite artist, title, provenance, subject or date. Plus, the database allows viewers to flip through sketchbooks, see "reassembled" albums (now separated for display) that preserve their collectorsí arrangements, and make a compilation of drawings for their own pleasure.

Too much to think about? Just opt for the "highlights" tour and be entertained with about 20 gems from the Walters/BMA treasure trove.

"The Essence of Line" closes in Baltimore on Sept. 11, 2005, then travels to the Birmingham Museum of Art, Feb. 19-May 14, 2006, and the Tacoma Art Museum, June 9-Sept.17, 2006.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.