Albrecht Dürer, “Portrait of the Artist’s Brother Endres” (ca. 1518). Charcoal on paper, background heightened with white. Gift of Mrs. Alexander Perry Morgan in memory of Alexander Perry Morgan, 1973, The Morgan Library & Museum. (all images courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum)

Albrecht Dürer, “Portrait of the Artist’s Brother Endres” (ca. 1518). Charcoal on paper, background heightened with white. Gift of Mrs. Alexander Perry Morgan in memory of Alexander Perry Morgan, 1973, The Morgan Library & Museum. (all images courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum)

Life Lines: Portrait Drawings from Dürer to Picasso at the Morgan Library & Museum may not venture very far beyond canonical European artists, but it uncovers richness and diversity within a circumscribed field, especially in the work of its two anchors, Albrecht Dürer and Pablo Picasso.

Pablo Picasso, “Portrait of Marie Derval” (1901). Pen and brush and black ink over graphite on paper. Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum (© 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Of the 51 drawings on display, only five were made the 20th century, with most dating from the 1600s and 1700s. Criticality, in the modern sense, doesn’t come into play; the social and psychological compact between painter and sitter remains inviolate. Staring at one another, each puts his or her best foot forward, infusing the work with a high degree of objectivity.

The searching, sardonic, sometimes savage tone found in the portraiture of such interwar Germans as Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Otto Dix and Christian Schad — to name just one subset of 20th-century artists — is unimaginable among the selections in this show. Instead we find comportment and equilibrium — a short bandwidth of expression that places these pictures at a far remove from our jittery, distracted existence.

Still, there are variations within that narrow terrain, mostly in terms of medium and sense of touch — the porcelain clarity of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres; the softly graced contours of Gian Lorenzo Bernini; the liquid immediacy of John Singer Sargent — that traverse the passage of time and the ongoing redefinition of the art object.

John Singer Sargent, “Portrait of Paul-César Helleu” (ca. 1882-85). Watercolor over graphite on paper. Gift of Rose Pitman Hughes and J. Lawrence Hughes in memory of Junius and Louise Morgan, 2005, The Morgan Library & Museum

The exhibition is divided into four parts: self-portraits; family and friends; formal portraits; and images that stretch the limits of portraiture (the last one being a curatorial pivot to include figurative drawings that are other than straight head shots).

The self-portraits feature two of the 20th-century works — a 1917 no-nonsense graphite by Lovis Corinth and a lyrically linear Henry Matisse in graphite crayon dating from 1945. Also of note is a fluid and light-filled self-portrait (ca. 1790), possibly meant as a gift to a friend, in graphite on blue writing paper by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Lebrun.

The family and friends section is the most varied and inventive: a sketchbook (ca. 1880) by Edgar Degas, crowded with freely caricatured heads; the strikingly graphic “Portrait of Jane Morris (née Burden)” (1860) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, dominated by masses of hair and the ballooning sleeves of Morris’s blouse; and Egon Schiele’s exquisitely fine-lined portrait of his sister Gerti (1909) in graphite and pink crayon, which makes you long for the Neue Galerie’s retrospective last fall.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun “Self-Portrait” (ca. 1790). Graphite on blue writing paper. Purchased on the Fellows Fund, 1955, The Morgan Library & Museum.

Also in this section is Albrecht Dürer’s charcoal “Portrait of the Artist’s Brother Endres” (ca. 1518). The wall text states that Endres was Dürer’s younger brother and that he was probably over the age of thirty at the time of the sitting (which is inferred from an earlier, inscribed and dated drawing that Dürer made on Endres’ birthday, now at the Albertina in Vienna). It does not mention that he had a thyroid problem, though his bulging eyeballs would seem to indicate that he does.

Whatever his condition, the line tracing the edge of his forehead, eye, nose, lips and chin evokes a sheer, rocky cliff; his sloped cap, its diagonal brim bisecting his head from crown to nape, becomes a counterweight simultaneously pressing downward and spiraling off the top of the sheet. The fur mantle covering Endres’ shoulders is like a dense forest canopy draped across a mountain ridge.

The simplicity, dynamism and abstraction of the composition, the jaggedness of the forms and the robust charcoal strikes, tempered by delicate accents of shadows and reflected light on the nose and underside of the chin, engender a rough-hewn monumentality unrivaled by anything else in the exhibition. Dürer’s drawing, in its current context, looks as compact as a Brancusi sculpture, an audaciously abstract compression of solids and voids.

Henri Matisse, “Self-Portrait” (1945). Graphite on paper. Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The other showstopper, found in the formal portraits section (though there’s nothing formal about it) is Pablo Picasso’s “Portrait of Marie Derval” (1901), rendered in pen, brush and black ink over graphite on paper. Barely twenty years old when he made it, this drawing is so early that he signed it “Ruiz,” his father’s name, and affixed a new signature with his mother’s name, Picasso, at a later date.

Marie Derval, as the wall label tells us, was “a popular actress in Paris at the turn of the century,” and Picasso portrays her as every inch the diva that she was. The outlines of her hat and coat are laid down in assertive, fluid brushstrokes, with black blots defining the sweep of her hair and what looks like a fox stole around her neck. Her eyes are rapidly drawn ringlets with two dabs of ink representing the pupils; the nostrils and mouth are quick, sharp marks upon an otherwise empty field. Interestingly, there is a tiny fleck of ink on the right cheek that brings to mind a teardrop tattoo.

The application of the marks is consistent with the loosening-up that Picasso’s style underwent between his academic juvenilia and the sentimentality of the Blue Period, and the air of casual decadence pervading the image is of a piece with the artist’s garishly lit “Le Moulin de la Galette,” painted in 1900, in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

And although we may feel as if we’ve seen it all when it comes to Picasso, “Marie Derval” still startles. The wall text cites the drawing’s resemblance to the expressionism of Edvard Munch, which is a fitting comparison: like much of Munch’s graphic work, its power springs from the fiercely frontal, wide-eyed pose and the slashing, writhing strokes of ink.

As with Jackson Pollock and his pre-drip “She Wolf” (1943), a work like “Marie Derval” suggests that Picasso would have been a formidable artist even if he hadn’t gone on to revolutionize painting. It demonstrates a prodigious mastery of drawing and an ability to synthesize form and expression into a retina-scorching unit — but one that retains (most notably in such details as the swirling graphite-and-ink eyes) the seams of its fevered making.

This early work underscores that, despite his later acclaim as a founder of Cubism, with its formal reconfigurations of volume and space, Picasso’s art is at bottom an expression of pure energy — a volatile combination of precision and recklessness that grabs what it needs from the past as it clears a path for whatever is to come.

Life Lines: Portrait Drawings for Dürer to Picasso continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 8.

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Thomas Micchelli

Thomas Micchelli is an artist, writer, and co-editor of Hyperallergic Weekend.