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Treasures at Fogg Museum

Master Drawings from the Woodner Collection. Through March 31, at the Fogg Art Museum, 32 Quincy Street, Cambridge.

In the middle of the 16th century, the Italian Giorgio Vasari -- himself a successful painter -- wrote a set of biographies of famous artists. In this work, he used his collection of other artist's drawings. He had gathered these over the years and inserted them in some twelve huge albums. After his death, the collection was dispersed.

Since those days, Vasari's fame as an artist has dwindled. But his reputation as an art historian has increased to such an extent that one of the few remaining intact pages of his albums was recently sold in London for more than 3 million pounds. The sale led to controversy in the Lords.

This tells us two things: Posterity might judge us otherwise than we would expect; and to gather a great collection of Old Master drawings is nowadays a multi-million dollar task.

The New York collector Ian Woodner seems to be a match for this task. The drawings in his possession are said to constitute the finest private collection in the world. And his is now the Vasari page mentioned above.

Harvard's Fogg Art Museum currently allows us a glance at these treasures. The resulting spectacle is impressive.

The inventory of this exhibition reads like the index of those single-volume History of Art blockbuster books. D"urer, Holbein, Leonardo, Raphael, Correggio, Tiepolo, Bruegel, Lorrain, Poussin, Rembrandt, Ingres, Seurat, Picasso, to mention some of the most illustrious, are present with works that come up to expectations.

But there are lots of surprises as well. Take for instance the 16th century Italians, Vasari's colleagues, who are particularly well represented. A delightful landscape sketch by Fra Bartolommeo has the calm spaciousness of his altar pieces, without their resounding solemnity.

In Salviati's oval Resurrection, delicate, ornate figures set in a turbulent atmosphere produce a splendid Mannerist counterpoint to the robust simplicity of a Piero della Francesca. The sketched figure compositions of Taddeo Zuccaro or Luca Cambiaso possess a degree of concentration which tends to get lost in the more ambitious setting of their painted works. The list could easily be extended.

A highlight even in this superlative collection is Rembrandt's first rendering of Joseph Recounting his Dreams. (For the later version, see below.) Joseph, serious, isolated, is contrasted with his brothers, distrustful, joking; between them, Jacob listens with a grave face, holding the little Benjamin between his knees. The figures, thinly, almost elusively sketched, stand against a background drawn with few, but firm broad strokes. A sense of menace pervades every feature of the scene.

Some special attention is accorded to the 19th century French painter Odilon Redon, represented with three large works. The androgynous features of his Head of Christ defy the traditional iconography. His role as a precursor of surrealism is most evident in the Cactus Man. Real darkness surrounds his haunting Diogenes, emerging with his lantern from the streets of Athens.

There is no single Leitmotiv at this exhibition. There is high quality in as broad a range as possible. Vasari's page states it all.

Graphic Art of Rembrandt. Through April 7, at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Rembrandt's second Joseph Recounting his Dreams is an etching from 1638. This time, Joseph sits at the centre of the family circle, the object of surprise and pride for his parents, of ill-concealed jealousy for his brothers. The pictorial surface is more evenly treated, the atmosphere intimate rather than dramatic.

This exhibition contains some 70 other etchings from the Museum's own collection, among them such all-time favorites as the Hundred Guilder Print and The Three Crosses. Both in scope and quality, it is an essentially complete reflection of this important aspect of Rembrandt's work. Three drawings are included as well.

Michiel Bos->