Featuring highlights of European drawing from the Robert Lehman Collection, the exhibition presents works by preeminent masters from the Renaissance to the modern age, including Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Georges Seurat, and Henri Matisse.
The selection reflects significant developments in the medium between the 15th and 20th centuries, as styles, techniques, and genres evolved, evoking illuminating comparisons across regions and eras. From portraits, figure studies, and landscapes to mythological and biblical narratives, the drawings represent a dynamic array of sacred and secular subjects in media ranging from metalpoint and pen and ink to chalk, graphite, pastel, and charcoal.
The role of drawing as the foundation of all the visual arts is illustrated by numerous preparatory studies for painting, sculpture, tapestry, engraving, and stained glass, including some very rare examples. Elucidating the varying stages of the design process, the works include rapid preliminary sketches, detailed studies of motifs, expansive compositional designs, and finished drawings intended for patrons.
The exhibition presents the full range of Robert Lehman's vast and distinguished drawings collection (numbering more than 700 sheets) and explores his significant activity as a drawings collector from the 1920s to the 1960s.
Robert Lehman bought his first drawings in the 1920s, adding works on paper to his father's distinguished painting collection. He began with rare sheets by Italian masters, acquisitions that complemented the growing assembly of early Italian Renaissance panel paintings. He continued to acquire drawings for the next half century, principally in the field of Italian art, but more expansively through examples from England, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United States. By his death in 1969, the drawings collection numbered more than 700 sheets. While a few examples found their way into other public institutions in his lifetime, the remaining sheets form part of the Robert Lehman Collection at the Museum. Together with the holdings in the Department of Drawings and Prints, it has granted the Museum an extraordinary collection of works on paper.
While Lehman took advice from connoisseurs, he often simply purchased what appealed to him. And yet, there are certain qualities of draftsmanship, commonalities of provenance, and collecting circumstances that define his choices. He preferred highly finished drawings, as the exhibition demonstrates. Many sheets were preparatory to crafting imagery in other media: sculpture, painting, printmaking, and even illustration. Numerous examples formed part of distinguished early collections, such as those of Giorgio Vasari and Sir Joshua Reynolds. He made remarkable acquisitions from private collection sales at auction, including 34 Italian Renaissance drawings from Luigi Grassi's collection in 1924. In 1948 Lehman turned his attention to modernism, often acquiring material directly from artists in their Paris studios. The splendid works on view are testimony to Lehman's prescience and exquisite eye, affording a small sampling of a trove to be appreciated for years to come.
During the medieval period, drawings were often produced on sheets of prepared animal skin and bound together into model books that functioned as archives of copied designs. In the Renaissance and beyond, drawings continued to serve as essential steps in the process of developing a finished work, yet the medium also began to flourish as a form of creative expression. By the mid-15th century, as paper became more widely available, Italian artists increasingly used drawing for exploratory purposes. With the rising status of the artist, the medium was valued for its unique potential to capture the draftsman's thought process, creative genius, and personal style.
As drawings emerged as works of art in their own right, they were prized by collectors such as Giorgio Vasari, the 16th-century artist and historian, who owned a Florentine drawing in the exhibition (Antonio Pollaiuolo, Study for the Equestrian Monument to Francesco Sforza). Vasari played a seminal role in elevating drawing's status and defining it as the basis for all the visual arts.
The Tuscan and northern Italian drawings on view in the exhibition elucidate one of the central values of Renaissance culture: the vigorous exploration of the human form and the natural world through direct observation. From rapid sketches to highly finished compositions, the selection includes portraits, nude and draped figures, landscapes, and animal studies. These works illustrate the transition from the medieval model book used in the workshop to the personal sketchbook used on-site in the Tuscan countryside. A primary focus of Robert Lehman's collecting, early Renaissance drawings were among his earliest purchases.
During the Renaissance, northern European artists produced meticulous and piercingly realistic studies of physiognomy and anatomy. On view are rare figural studies by artists in the circle of the preeminent Netherlandish masters of this era, Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, who achieved an exquisite delicacy and precision of form through the medium of metalpoint, as well as pen and ink.
The remarkable series of 15th-century German drawings includes several sheets by Albrecht Dürer, foremost among them a self-portrait—a milestone in modern portraiture that attests to the evolving role of the artist in Renaissance culture. Other arresting head studies display a dramatic chiaroscuro technique, in which white heightening contrasts with a dark-colored ground, evoking the tonal range of painting.
Among the highlights of 17th-century Dutch and French drawing is Rembrandt's monumental red chalk study after Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, one of several examples of northern artists reinterpreting Italian models. Numerous landscape drawings—rendered in various tones of ink wash—demonstrate both the proliferation and the diversity of this genre. In their wide-ranging functions, the works on view affirm drawing's foundational role in the visual arts. They include preparatory studies for painting, sculpture, textiles, and stained glass, as well as studies made after painting and sculpture.
The language and fluency of drawing broadened in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly among artists whose exposure to Italian art as pensioners at the French Academy in Rome reinvigorated their practice. In Venice, Giambattista and Domenico Tiepolo produced drawings of virtuosic innovation, redefining the boundaries of pen, ink, and wash. In France, refined Neoclassicism gave way to unrestrained Romanticism, and artists such as Camille Corot traveled to explore the wonders of nature and ancient ruins in the landscape surrounding Rome.
Domenico Tiepolo is remembered today more for his dynamic draftsmanship than for his painted legacy. His ribald narratives on the commedia dell'arte character Punchinello are among his most celebrated sheets. Imparting humor and pathos, engaging the fantastical and the farcical, the finished drawings resonate beyond theater to the everyman. Robert Lehman was clearly as taken by their wit and provocative messaging as by their brilliant manipulation of brown wash to model form and suggest light.
An artist of the French Enlightenment, Jean Honoré Fragonard developed an exuberant manner of draftsmanship in imaginative compositions of red chalk or dark washes. Antoine Watteau perfected the art of drawing using three colors of chalk—black, white, and red. This trois crayons technique, admired by his contemporaries, produced sparkling studies to painterly effect.
To an impressive and expanding collection of old masters, Robert Lehman added holdings of late 19th- and early 20th-century drawings in his final decades. Pairing modern artists with a canonical list of historical draftsmen was unusual for patrician collectors in his day; it signaled an open-minded engagement with contemporary art.
Not coincidentally, Lehman focused on French drawings. At ease in the French language and well acquainted with Paris, he traveled to the capital every year from his childhood until just before his death. He was less inclined to buy Impressionist drawings (though there are a few superb examples) than those of the Post-Impressionists and early modernists who followed, bringing the arc of the collection right into the 20th century. He favored the Neo-Impressionists, amassing many fine drawings and watercolors. For Paul Signac, drawing and painting were in rhyme—his stippling and dotted modeling found expression on both canvas and paper. Outside of France, Lehman bought well, if sparingly. Very much his own adviser, he often gave equal time to rather quirky modernists with no obvious pedigree.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (French, 1780–1867). Study for "Raphael and the Fornarina" (detail), ca. 1814. Graphite on white wove paper, 10 x 7 3/4 in. (25.4 x 19.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.646)