It is rare to come upon a child prodigy in art collecting. At the age of eight,Frederik Frits Lugt pinned this notice to his door: Museum Lutigis,open when the director is home. Lugt had already catalogued his first collection. True,it was of unusual sea shells,but within two years the young Dutch boy was a regular in the Rijksmuseum print room and had acquired his first Old Master drawing. In his early teens he spent a year writing a biography of Rembrandt which he illustrated with his own copies of the works mentioned.
Lugt came to believe that he would learn more by looking at and handling art than by reading about it. He abandoned secondary school for a job in an auction house. Yet he was always a scholar. His catalogue of collectors marks is still a classic.
When war broke out in 1939 Lugt sent much of his collection to Switzerland for safekeeping. Eight years later he moved his family and his drawings to Paris where they remained. The collection continued to grow in depth and in breadth. A Rembrandt copy of a Mughal portrait of Shah Jahan inspired Lugt to find the original. This led to a collection of Indian miniatures. His conviction that art looks best in frames of the same period led to the acquisition of many historic specimens. But Old Master drawings were his first and enduring love. He started with the Dutch and branched out from there.
In 1947,Lugt and his wife established the Fondation Custodia to keep the collection intact for future generations. He bought a property off the Boulevard St Germain to house it and arranged for one of its two handsome buildings to become the Dutch cultural centre in Paris,the Institut Néerlandais. When Lugt died in 1970 at the age of 86,on Rembrandts birthday (July 15th),the foundation held 6,000 Old Master drawings,thousands of etchings and artists letters,as well as the miniatures and frames. It is well endowed and has continued to grow.
It has always been a study collection,not a museum and is open only by appointment. Few non-specialists even know it exists. A selection of works was shown last year at the Frick Museum in New York. Now more than 90 French drawings from the 18th and 19th centuries have been put on show in Paris. Among these are a pair of poetic drawings by Claude Lorrain,Sunrise and Evening Landscape,and in the rooms displaying 19th-century works hangs Etienne-Pierre-Théodore Rousseaus charcoal sketch,Queen Blanches Oak in the Forest of Fontainebleau,which is nearly four feet tall.
Among other works on view are drawings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard,Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Jean-François Millet. François Bouchers Standing Woman Seen from Behind,a study in black,red and white chalk that is reproduced alongside,is particularly captivating. The long-necked,informally dressed,young woman with casually upswept hair was clearly a coquette or posed to portray one. She twists and dips,raising a ruffled skirt to reveal a dainty foot slipped into a backless shoe. The contrast with two drawings by Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix is bracing. These brown- ink sketches,probably of panthers,were done quickly and pack a punch. One beast is seen in profile,the other racing away; both burst with frightening energy. Among drawings by less well known artists is an oil on paper by Louis Jean-Jacques Durameau which captures the hard and heavy labour of workers in a paper mill. But the sheets that really take the breath away are six lyrical drawings by Antoine Watteau,including the Turkish man.
Lugt said he bought artists letters because each one enabled him to have an important conversation,with its author. This exhibition is like having a conversation with Lugt. One leaves with a head full of wonderful images,wishing for the conversation to resume soon.