A whole library of information is tucked away behind the lines in "Old Master Drawings From the Collection of John and Alice Steiner," at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art through Sept. 14.
You can read some of it for yourself, as when Maarten de Vos interprets the legendary theme "Abduction of the Sabine Women" as a full-fledged battle in a 16th-Century Roman setting. Frans Luyckx's "Building of a Fortified Town" is equally forthright, though you must squint to take in all the action packed into its spidery red chalk images. This Breughel-like scene of tiny men scrambling to construct walls and towers is an anthill of energy.
So far, so easy; but other drawings become much more meaningful when we peruse the catalogue, edited by Alfred Moir, a University of California, Santa Barbara art history professor whose students wrote the entries. We learn, for instance, that Jean Honore Fragonard's chalk drawing "The Ruins of the Colosseum" was done during a blissful period in Rome. Basking in success and absorbed with romantic fascination for ruins, the rococo master limned this work as an archeological study that would be adapted for the backgrounds of his paintings.
We also discover that Urs Graf, a Swiss artist remembered in the "Dictionary of Art and Artists" as "a vile man who frequently went off as a mercenary soldier" and drew his brutish buddies, was capable of recording the ceremonial elegance of the military. "A Flagbearer: The Swiss Canton of Underwalden" depicts a sinewy, swashbuckling soldier whose clothing wraps his limbs in spiraling fabric.
These drawings are among hundreds of sheets collected by Alice and the late John Steiner. Though the Steiners didn't begin buying Old Master drawings until 1971, they lost no time amassing an astonishing collection. The first public presentation of it occurred in 1977 at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University. This second, larger exhibition of 101 works opened at Yale University and will journey on to the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, Mass., and the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va.
The good and the bad news about the current exhibition is that the collection stretches out in too many directions to be easily categorized or assimilated. It covers three centuries; encompasses France, Italy and the Netherlands along with bits of Switzerland and England, and surveys a daunting range of themes, in a variety of mediums.
Whether your taste runs to Titian's landscapes, Tiepolo's figurative heroics, Thomas Rowlandson's wicked caricatures or Annibale Carracci's fleshy nudes, there's something for you in "Old Master Drawings." Who can complain about coming across Bronzino's Mannerist "Study of a Male Nude," done in preparation for his fresco of the "Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence"?
Or, for that matter, about a 15th-Century miniature by an anonymous Venetian who created a frontispiece for a ducal covenant? This gilded illumination frames three mortals, a lion (symbolizing Venice and St. Mark) and a holy personage in elaborate scrollwork. Solemnly posed as if taking an oath of office, the central figure is Venetian nobleman Carlo Corner.
Despite the intriguing and frustrating disparity, the exhibition is weighted toward Italy. Half the works were done by Italians and many others by foreigners under their influence. The southward lure was so strong that it seems more surprising to find Dutch artists drawing typically Dutch maritime scenes than Italianate landscapes, such as Herman van Swanevelt's "River Landscape With Draughtsmen and Travellers."
Biblical themes and landscapes dominate the show, but they are laced with mythology and history. In short, this exhibition can be almost anything you choose to make of it--except tightly focused.
Above all, it makes the point that drawings are often the liveliest source of information about artists' ideas and the historical periods that spawned them. "Old Master Drawings" has its share of connoisseurs' tidbits and fragments of larger concepts, but it also offers a surprising array of complete artworks.
Those seeking professional guidance from someone who knows the collection intimately will get it from Alfred Moir, Aug. 28 at 7:30 p.m., when he presents a slide lecture at the museum on highlights of the exhibition.