The Morgan Library is currently hosting Treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden: The Collections of Count Tessin, a selection of more than seventy-five drawings and paintings on loan from Stockholm while the museum undergoes renovation. The Nationalmuseum, which now holds nearly half a million drawings, was founded in the late 1700s with the collection of Count Carl Gustaf Tessin, a Swedish politician, diplomat and inveterate art aficionado. Tessin is the subject of a portrait he commissioned from Jacques André-Joseph Aved, which serves as a frontispiece for the exhibition. He is seen seated in his dressing gown in a scholarly milieu, holding a print of a Raphael drawing. Six sessions into the painting, Tessin noted that Aved had “merely sketched the eyebrows and eyelids,” but the painstaking approach paid off, for when the portrait was completed it met with generous praise. In private, the subject expressed regret that he hadn’t hired a more prominent portraitist, with the belated observation that you get what you pay for (for the record, Aved was good enough to have taught both Boucher and Chardin). It is, in fact, a very good work of its kind: the figure and fabrics, especially the fine silk robe and embroidered lace shirt, are beautifully painted. Perhaps Tessin was uncomfortable with the characterization, since his small mouth and soft jowls are more suggestive of dissolution than of his formidable political and oratorical skills. As a young man, Tessin travelled to Paris and Italy, ostensibly to study architecture and continue his father’s business; instead he enjoyed a social life in the company of women and card players. A political career followed, and Tessin held a government position equivalent to that of Prime Minister. His discerning eye and profligate spending would eventually benefit Sweden’s cultural holdings. While in Paris in the early 1740s, Tessin couldn’t get enough art, befriending the best painters in the city and buying old master drawings in quantity until he went broke. Fortunately, his friend King Fredrik I bailed him out by purchasing the collection as a gift to the queen, and this subsequently formed the nucleus of Sweden’s national collection.
In addition to his portrait, two other paintings Tessin commissioned in 1740 are included here. Endearing is Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s portrait of Pehr, Tessin’s favorite hunting dog and traveling companion; it must be the most noble depiction of a dachshund in art history. Tessin’s marquee commission was Boucher’s The Triumph of Venus, one of the artist’s acknowledged masterpieces. Notwithstanding my weakness for toutes choses féminines, everything about this makes my teeth hurt. The painting’s softly sanitized eroticism and false color foreshadow the perfumed fantasies of lesser nineteenth-century French painting, when the aristocratic ideal of the nude was updated for the bourgeoisie. But it’s also the precursor to Renoir, whose adoration of the female form, while equally palpable, was born of earthier soil.
There is gentle remonstration close by in the form of a bunch of small oils by Chardin, a painter of domestic life who at his best is just a brush length short of Vermeer. Woman Drawing Water from a Water Urn is an early figure piece, but it signals Chardin’s compositional strengths, fondness for setting white drapery against warm interiors, and signature clotted build-up of paint, one of the most subtle and satisfyingly tangible pleasures in western art. His Young Student Drawing, well-known through reproductions, is astonishingly tiny, and slicked-up as the panel is with varnish it is easier to view in the show’s catalogue than in the flesh.
Most of the show is devoted to old master drawings, which has always been the Morgan’s specialty. The works on paper include drawings from France, Italy, Germany, Flanders and the Netherlands. The drawings are as varied as the nations, some delicate, some boisterous, some intense and some Rembrandt. The Dutchman’s pen and brush drawings are the liveliest things in the building. Study for the Figure of Esther in the Great Jewish Bride, impetuous and imperfect, nonetheless carves a magnificent space with a fusillade of ink gashes, loops and washes. We have the luxury of appreciating the radical shorthand of these private notations, and can only imagine what a large canvas, painted with commensurate ferocity and economy, would have looked like. It would be two centuries before Daumier retained such visceral draftsmanship in his painting.
To my surprise, a charcoal and chalk portrait by Dürer is more tender than intense, and is excelled in that form of sobriety that seems particularly Northern by Lucas van Leyden’s Portrait of a Man with a Cast in his Eye, drawn the same year the two artists met in Antwerp. Van Leyden’s controlled hatching in black chalk is nearly preternatural, and renders the three-dimensional appearance of the man’s skin and clothing with cool precision. A Hendrick Goltzius self-portrait in colored chalks is bland by comparison, a business card advertising the artist’s respectability. The master of trois crayons was Watteau, whose Four Studies of a Young Woman’s Head displays a characteristic delicacy of touch. His Three Studies of the Head of a Young Man, a more successfully composed grouping, is the counterproof of a celebrated drawing in the Louvre. Watteau often produced reverse images by moistening a sheet of paper, placing it on the original drawing and running it through a press. That the results lack the snap of an original can be seen by comparing these two drawings, hung side by side.
Raphael’s Adoration of the Infant Christ, a pen and ink study, exhibits an incomparable sense of harmony both in the disposition of individual figures and their grouping with respect to the overall design. In the early 1500s Raphael’s drawing still revealed echoes of his contemporaries—he was only twenty-one or so when he drew this—yet his distinctive draftsmanship and humanism were already apparent. The more naturalistic impulse in Italian Renaissance art is exemplified by Ghirlandaio’s renowned Head of an Old Man, about which the scholarship will be forever inconclusive as to whether the subject was observed while sleeping or dead; and by Annibale Carracci’s life study of a reclining male nude, a marvelous essay in foreshortening, so sensually apprehended that it was long attributed to Correggio.
Tessin’s years in Paris were not devoted solely to collecting, for he was engaged in strengthening a long-neglected alliance with France. He made diplomatic overtures to Denmark, and supported a losing war against Russia. Prominent a political figure as he was, Tessin may now be better remembered for his art collection. There is comfort in that. If we sometimes seem to be fairly drowning in the chaos of the newsworthy, the Morgan’s show is a reminder of what’s lasting.
Politica est brevis, ars aeternum
Treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden: The Collections of Count Tessin is on view at the Morgan Library through May 14, 2017.