Intelligent Design: The Smart Museum displays sketches that became masterworks

For a number of reasons, drawing has never commanded the same position in the artistic pantheon afforded to painting or sculpture. Among the bigger ones is that drawing often seems a preparatory step for the creation of a more substantial work, and the rawest one at that. So while painted studies sometimes get their due as critical experiments in expressing ideas for a final work, the sketches that first incubate those ideas often languish in archives.

The arrival of the traveling exhibit “Masters From the Yale University Art Gallery” at Hyde Park’s Smart Museum doesn’t challenge these judgments so much as illuminate them, highlighting draftsmanship and its role in the creative process through eighty-seven works from Yale’s European collections. Culled from more than 1,000 rarely seen works from before 1900, “Masters” surveys the changing face of European art through most of the last five centuries with a unique depth.

Beginning with an anthropomorphic and decidedly unnatural fifteenth-century Venetian drawing of a lion, the exhibit traces the creative process on both the level of the individual piece and its greater context in the history of post-Medieval European art. As a mechanism for planning, drawing is shown to be universal. Many of the works on display are studies for later pieces, but those later pieces range from engravings to stained glass, from paintings to altarpieces. This raises the only obvious quibble with the exhibit: Only one set of studies are shown with the final works they inspired. But more profoundly, “Masters” tracks the stylistic movements from Mannerism to Degas’s original Impressionism in a way that final, famous works do not. Even though a majority of the pieces are anonymous, or are attributable only to a school or a collection, the starkness of charcoal and ink elucidates the thematic and technical shifts accompanying each period. The shifting balance between formalism and naturalism is never so apparent as in these unadorned, unburdened drawings.

“Masters” is also a kind of social survey. Although the works are arranged chronologically, you could be forgiven for initially reaching the conclusion that they were organized by theme. Mary, Christ, and the saints occupy a major role in earlier works, while neoclassical imagery and naturalistic figures emerge as central ideas only later. While it’s a minor aspect, Europe’s relation to the rest of the world is evident as well. Turkish dress is an object of fascination, and at least one piece was inspired by the artist’s trip to Istanbul. Jean François Millet’s murky chalk sketches for an illustration of the rescue of Daniel Boone’s daughter (for which his main reference was James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans”) recalls the same lack of understanding apparent in the anonymous Venetian’s lion.

Of course, the purpose of an art museum is never simply to edify. Nearly all the works on display in “Masters” stand on their own for aesthetic reasons, without regard to their creator’s fame or the rarity with which they’re displayed. Théodore Gericault’s study for “The Raft of the Medusa” is a particular gem, even with the perspective that differs from that of the final product. Much of the appreciation of these pieces comes back to the intimacy and spontaneity of drawing. Many of the works are the first translation of the artist’s ideas onto paper, giving them a vitality that surpasses the polish and embellishment of finished works. Two vigorous examples are the skeletal grin of an onlooker in the anonymous Dutch artist of 1527’s “Mocking of the Christ,” and the explosive rays of light emanating from the figures in Raymond Lafarge’s “Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law.” The small number of drawings conceived as independent works are similarly exquisite. Gian Lorenzo Barbini’s “Portrait of Cardinal Sforza Pallavicino” is a scrutinizing image of the scholar, and a drawing so beloved by its French owner that years of display nearly erased the lines. It’s a shame that it would go on to spend decades unseen, except by art historians. One can only hope that “Masters” isn’t the last time it goes on display.

Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S Greenwood Ave. Through January 6. Tuesday-Friday, 10am-5pm, Thursday 10am-8pm, Saturday-Sunday 11am-5pm. (773) 702-0200. http://smartmuseum.uchicago.edu