In the Drawing Room At the Metropolitan, It’s Courbet at 21

Drawing has been called the chamber music of the visual arts. Just as in a musical composition for a piano trio, say, or a string quartet, we’re better able to attend not only to the separate instruments but to the individual notes than in a symphonic work for full orchestra, so with a drawing on paper, our concentration is more sharply focused on the lines and other marks and touches of the artist’s hand than with the drawing to be discerned in a large oil painting on canvas. Drawings place us in an intimate, almost conversational relation to the artist’s sensibility. They give us an initial profile of an artist’s vision and, in certain cases-a portrait drawing by Ingres, for example, or a character study by Daumier-they may define the boundaries of the expectations we bring to an artist’s entire oeuvre .

There are some excellent examples of both Ingres and Daumier in the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that Dita Amory has organized in French Nineteenth Century Drawings in the Robert Lehman Collection . Needless to say, since all of the 80-plus drawings in the show are from the celebrated Lehman Collection, a great many other illustrious figures of the period are also represented-among them, Corot, Courbet, David, Delacroix, Degas, Pissarro, Renoir, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec. The occasion for the show is the publication of the ninth volume in the magisterial series of catalogs the Met has devoted to the Lehman Collection-a volume running to nearly 500 pages that provides commentary, documentation and illustrations of the 200-plus 19th- and 20th-century European drawings in the collection.

In his taste for drawings as in other matters, the late Robert Lehman (1891-1969) was a devoted Francophile, and so it was inevitable that French drawings would be accorded the lion’s share of attention in a volume purporting to survey European drawings. Thus, among the 20th-century works that are documented in Volume 9 of the catalog, neither Max Beckmann nor Piet Mondrian nor Paul Klee nor Lovis Corinth is represented. Even in the current show of 19th-century drawings, we are oftenleftwithanimpressionthat Lehman’s preference for things French sometimes led him to settle for some fairly minor works; and among the 20th-century drawings published in the catalog, it’s certainly a surprise to find that a collector of such distinction apparently had such a passion for a nonentity like Marcel Vertès.

Still, there’s more than enough in the current show to engage the interest of drawing connoisseurs. The single most surprising item-and for myself, the most exciting-is the Self-Portrait with Upraised Arm (circa 1840) by Gustave Courbet. We don’t get to see many of Courbet’s drawings, and if this one truly is the work of Courbet-there seems to be some question-it would have to be considered one of his earliest masterpieces, executed when he was 21 or thereabouts. In his illuminating commentary in the catalog, Richard R. Brettell writes: “If the attribution of the sheet to Gustave Courbet can be sustained, it may be the earliest surviving drawing by him.” And what a beginning that was-if it was! I have no doubts about it myself, but the drawing’s preening virtuosity and manly display make it seem almost too good to be true.

Mr. Brettell also raises the interesting question of whether the drawing has its source in a painting by Leonardo. “If we consider the possibility that Courbet’s gesture has its source in some religious work by an earlier master, the heavenward-pointing right hand of Leonardo’s Saint John the Baptist springs immediately to mind.” It was Courbet’s lifelong practice, after all, to make copies of the Old Masters even when he had achieved celebrity as a master himself. “He certainly would have seen the provocative Saint John the Baptist in the Louvre in Paris, where it has been since 1661,” as Mr. Brettell reminds us. He also points out that “Leonardo’s Saint John is about the same age as Courbet would have been in 1839, and his centrally parted mass of hair (in most of Courbet’s early self-portraits his hair is parted on the side) and bare torso also invite comparison with Courbet’s self-portrait.”

It would, in any case, be characteristic of Courbet’s upstart genius to invite such comparisons, for while it’s doubtful that a radical like Courbet would have had much of an interest in the vocation of sainthood, he was nothing if not a showoff when it came to comparing himself to the masters he admired. For this and reasons already cited, I am persuaded that this is indeed a Courbet self-portrait.

French Nineteenth Century Drawings in the Robert Lehman Collection closes at the Met on Feb. 9, but Volume 9 of the catalog will remain a treasure of scholarship and connoisseurship for many years to come. Mr. Brettell and the other writers who have contributed their expert intelligence to this volume-Françoise Forster-Hahn, Duncan Robinson and Janis Tomlinson-have put us all in their debt. To them, and to Ms. Amory, the curator of the show: Bravo!