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Are the Art Institute’s drawings masterly? It doesn’t matter.

“Master Drawings Unveiled” is a welcome downscaled exhibition for the museum.

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Does a "master drawing" have to be drawn by a master? What is a "master drawing"? Furthermore, how does one qualify as a "master" draftsman? The Art Institute's new survey show, "Master Drawings Unveiled: 25 Years of Major Acquisitions," won't answer any of these questions, but it does contain enough pleasurable works to interest those who appreciate the art of drawing—in particular, people who draw, whether for a living or for recreation.

"Master Drawings Unveiled" is the polar opposite of the Art Institute's recent "Van Gogh's Bedrooms," which was calculated for mass appeal to a fault. There are no glitzy multimedia tie-ins, nor even a printed catalog—just marks on paper, with barely any distracting supplementary material. The only criteria for the exhibit are that the pieces date from the 17th to mid-20th centuries, have been acquired in the past 25 years, and never have been displayed in the museum before. This framework produces an uneven show, but patient visitors with a grasp of art history can have a rewarding experience.

The show begins on a high note: just to the right of the entrance is Gustave Caillebotte's Study for Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877). A preparatory sketch for one of the museum's most iconic paintings (Paris Street; Rainy Day), it's a great, behind-the-scenes clue to how a masterpiece is made. The famous passersby are rendered in wiry squiggles and the umbrellas they hold in the painting are absent, save for a crude arcing line in the middle of the composition, where Caillebotte was trying to figure out the umbrellas' eventual placement. The piece was likely done outside on a Paris street, then taken back to the studio to be used as reference for an artwork that would eventually be reproduced on countless posters, mugs, and even umbrellas.

There is nothing else in "Master Drawings Unveiled" that's quite as resonant, but there are many minor discoveries. In Jean-François Millet's Landscape—Hillside in Gruchy, Normandy (1869-'70), the lumpy earth upon which cows wander palpably conveys the feeling of working the land. And Sir David Wilkie's Guess My Name (1821) invites the viewer to guess along with the young man in the drawing, whose eyes are being covered by a girl's hands. This study, commissioned by a German nobleman, is intimate in a way the finished painting could never be, one of the better examples of this exhibit's virtues. No grand statements or bravura performances—rather, sensitive studies and whispered fragments that give an inkling of the artistic process without obvious forcefulness.

The "master" tag in "Master Drawings Unveiled" could be interpreted as misleading. There are indeed pieces by well-known names such as Max Beckmann, Edgar Degas, Käthe Kollwitz, and Francis Picabia, but the lion's share were done by lesser-known or now-forgotten artists. In many of the wall texts, the work is attributed to a student or a friend of someone more famous. This isn't necessarily a shortcoming—the stated aim is to introduce the public to some of the museum's hidden treasures—and with both celebrated and obscure examples, rendered in a half-dozen styles, the breadth of the Art Institute's holdings are represented.

But whether done by a master or an amateur, not every piece rises to the highest standard. Jean-Étienne Liotard's Portrait of a Man Holding a Book, Turned to the Right (1758/'62) is a sloppy, dashed-off study that hopefully didn't cost the Art Institute too much. Liotard may well have been an 18th-century master of the pastel portrait, as the wall text claims, but he certainly didn't demonstrate it during the half hour he spent drawing this one. Perhaps it was included to demonstrate that even a master can have an off day.

The drawings, prints, pastels, and watercolors here provide an unusual insight into the varied tastes of the curators who have acquired work for the museum during the past 25 years. And in an era of overblown multimedia extravaganzas put on by museums to attract maximum revenue, a low-key art show such as this one, which welcomes independent introspection and only reveals its beauty hesitantly, is a welcome respite.  v

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