On a cold morning in the second week of this year, I took the T to Harvard Square. I had a midday appointment with some people I had long wanted to meet: Marguerite, Esther, and Leon — each one the child of a very famous artist.
In lightly falling snow, I crossed Harvard Yard to Quincy Street, marched up the steps of the Harvard Art Museums, traversed the grand old internal courtyard with its new, industrial-looking upper reaches, and took the elevator to the fourth floor.
After putting my winter gear in a locker, I washed my hands at a sink in a small anteroom, and was ushered into a large, light-filled room — the museum’s new Art Study Center. In contrast to the galleries below, already bustling with visitors, this room was vast, virtually empty, and uncannily hushed. Its sloping glass walls were blanketed intimately in a translucent sheet of snow.
Apart from myself, the only other living person in the room was a museum staffer. Charming and helpful when addressed, she nonetheless sensed the almost giggle-inducing gravity of the occasion, and kept a discreet distance as I approached my new friends.
There were six of them, all drawings. One was a portrait by Henri Matisse of his daughter Marguerite. Alongside the Matisse — just a few lines in ink — was a detailed portrait in pencil by Lucian Freud showing his young daughter Esther in pigtails.
Next was a watercolor by Edouard Manet showing his wife Suzanne at a table with their teenage son Leon. There were also two early drawings (a mother and daughter and a standing naked woman) by Pablo Picasso, and, last but not least, a portrait, in incredibly fine pencil, of Edouard Manet, by his friend and rival Edgar Degas.
A magnifying glass and tape measure were conveniently on hand. I could also write notes with a pencil.
Best of all, I was accorded the privilege of peace, quiet, and all the time in the world.
You, too, dear reader, can have this experience. You don’t have to be a Harvard student. You don’t have to be a visiting professor, an esteemed art historian, a famous artist, a curator, or a critic.
This is how it works: Visit the Harvard Art Museums website (www.harvardartmuseums.org), click on “Teaching and Research,” then “Art Study Center,” and then you fill out a simple online form, explaining a bit about who you are and what you want to see.
You can choose — and this is the incredible part — anything that is not on display in the museum.
You don’t have to restrict yourself, as I did, to drawings. You could request the chance to get up close and personal with John Singer Sargent’s painted study of a naked Prometheus, writhing as his abdomen is pierced by a giant bird of prey. You could choose a 700-year-old blue-and-gold sorcerer’s robe from Japan, or a carved marble sculpture of a child’s hand emerging from a flower by Hiram Powers.
Or perhaps it would turn you on to scrutinize a colored pencil drawing by Jackson Pollock from 1939, around the time he first saw Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica”?
Take your pick.
What you’re in for is an experience that may well prove transformative. It is hard not to be spellbound by the experience of being in close, unharried proximity to great works of art, made available especially for you.
Harvard is not the only museum to offer members of the public a chance to see works in the collection that are not on display in its galleries. The Museum of Fine Arts, for instance, has the Morse Study Room, one of the world’s great print rooms in terms of both size and quality. Anyone is welcome to make an appointment.
But there, the focus is on prints, drawings, and photographs. And although the MFA’s holdings in these areas are stupendous, Harvard has dramatically expanded the scope of its study center by making works in any medium available. The only restrictions, says Mary Lister, who manages the center, relate to works that are too delicate or simply too big to move.
On the day I sat down to select the works I wanted to see, I wasn’t thinking about outsize sculptures or fragile tapestries. I was thinking instead about artists and their children.
Years ago, I had read a novel by Esther Freud, the daughter of the British painter Lucian Freud, called “Hideous Kinky.” Set in Morocco, and told from the point of view of a child, the story became a favorite in our family. (It was made into a film starring Kate Winslet).
The cover of the original paperback features a drawing of Esther by her father. Shortly after moving to Boston in 2008, I discovered that Harvard owned the portrait. I was eager to see it, but had to wait more than five years for the museum to reopen. When it did, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the drawing remained in storage.
Now, here it was, right before my eyes.
I was a little star-struck. I visit the public galleries of museums every week, but this felt different. It was like looking on optical steroids.
I noted the way Freud used long, repeating, serpentine pencil lines for Esther’s hair, which was in pigtails. The left pigtail was somehow crisper, more defined, and seemed to push forward in space, while the right seemed slightly smudged, and further away.
Looking closer, the same was true of the left eye compared with the right. One was sharply etched, beneath a deeper, darker brow; the other was weaker, Freud’s cross-hatching blurrier.
Freud made several paintings of Esther in the 1980s, by which time she was a grown woman. Confusingly, this drawing of her as a young girl was made later, in 1991. It turns out that it was based on a childhood photograph, something Freud — who usually relied on the physical presence of his sitters — almost never did.
But if the drawing’s source in photography explains the shifting focus, it does nothing to explain Esther’s gorgeous, intelligent gaze, or the portrait’s throat-catching particularity.
Biographers tend to focus on the tribulations endured by artists’ lovers and spouses. But artists’ children, too, put up with a lot. For Marguerite Matisse, Matisse’s first child, this was especially true. She not only modeled regularly for her father over several decades, but also was his studio assistant, his moral support, his helpmeet. She shared his early poverty, his bouts of despair — and his triumphs, too.
When Matisse made the drawing of her now in Harvard’s collection, it was 1906 — the year that Matisse met Picasso. Marguerite was 12. She had a dimple in her chin, and dark, frizzy hair that she sometimes kept loose, and sometimes tied in a ponytail.
Years earlier, she had nearly died of diphtheria. Her breathing was so badly impeded that she was given an emergency tracheotomy while her father held her down on the table. As she was recovering, she contracted typhoid fever, which brought her close to death a second time. But Marguerite was plucky. Matisse both adored her and continued to depend on her.
The drawing of her I had asked to see combines bold black lines in ink with lighter marks around her hair, and it’s marked by Matisse’s characteristically confident economy.
Here, as in the Freud, the eyes were asymmetrical, which somehow animated the image. Both artists clearly enjoyed the rhythms established by their daughters’ cascading hair. And just as Freud paid particular attention to Esther’s necklace, describing each bead as an individual circle, Matisse has emphasized Marguerite’s signature black choker, which she wore to cover the scar from the tracheotomy.
Still, in terms of sheer mark-making, how different these portraits are! Freud puts everything in; Matisse leaves as much as possible out.
Manet, like Matisse, had a child who was a favorite model. But his relationship with Leon, as the boy was called, was complicated. Leon’s mother was Suzanne Leenhoff, a Dutchwoman whom Manet’s parents had hired to be their sons’ piano teacher. Suzanne began an affair with Manet, who was younger than she, in the 1850s, but Manet didn’t marry her until 1863, 11 years after Leon was born.
The Manet I requested to see is a study, in watercolor, for a painting in the collection of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. It shows Leon, age 18 or 19, smoking serenely at a table with his mother, Suzanne, facing an open window with a view to the sea.
The Manets had been traumatically separated during the recent Franco-Prussian War, when Paris was besieged, its inhabitants reduced to eating rats, and Manet and Degas both served in the city’s doomed defense force.
Here, Manet showed his beloved family, reunited in the seaside town of Arcachon on the Bay of Biscay. What a lot they had been through! There is something beautifully relaxed and unfussy about Manet’s sketch, which has been made in watercolor, brown ink, and pencil on two sheets of graph paper pasted together.
What a contrast between it and Degas’s scintillating sketch, from five years earlier, of Manet himself! The drawing hits you immediately as fond and tender. Manet’s body has been briskly sketched in.
Most of Degas’s attention went into Manet’s face, which has been executed with efficiency —
The most miraculous part is Manet’s eye. Using the magnifying glass, I tried to make out how Degas had captured the amused, affectionate look in that eye, which is so tiny on the page, with so little. I even used the pencil I had with me to try to reproduce those marks on paper.
No luck. I couldn’t get close. A tiny shift this way made the eye express anger; that way, fatigue.
How had he done it?
Manet must have been flattered. But perhaps he also felt threatened? He had been Degas’s mentor, perhaps still was. But how do you compete with a talent like that?
It sounds crazy, but the air around all these drawings seemed to me to vibrate with intelligence. A series of singular intelligences, yes, but also a shared intelligence, as if all of these artists — and perhaps their subjects, too — were talking to each other.
This is what makes drawing so magnetic, of course. It carries a specific weight because it is so unmediated, and so singular. The connection between an artist’s idea, observation, or sensation, his or her hand, and you, the viewer, perhaps hundreds of years later, is preserved right there, in just a few marks on a page.
In the right frame of mind, and the right circumstances, those marks can take on an almost magical intensity.
Try it yourself.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.