The names drop like a hammer on an anvil: Picasso, Matisse, Degas, Chagall, Pissarro, Dufy - major stars of French art, as well as supporting players. No, Picasso wasn’t French, not even close - if he was French he wouldn’t have worked so hard. Picasso was Spanish by birth, but spent most of his life in France, and close is good enough in horseshoes and art exhibits.
“Dessins: 100 Years of French Drawing” at the Boca Museum of Art is a good-sized exhibit, with 35 pieces, and it’s sprinkled with gems.
There are more than a half dozen Picasso’s, four of which strike me as elegant and superb: a charcoal head of Fernande Olivier, an early mistress, a “Head of Rembrandt” from 1934 and a spectacular etching called “Dying Minotaur and Young Compassionate Woman” from 1933. The dying beast is struggling on the amphitheater floor, while the girl - her face is quite neutral, almost masklike - reaches out to him. Picasso’s focus is on the Minotaur, and his fading power is captured in a few strokes with a power and concision that take your breath away.
And there’s a Picasso called “Nude Figures on the Beach,” from 1921 that’s done with graphite, charcoal and a pastel wash. The result looks like a particularly pleasing duotone lithograph. (Picasso found his mature style fairly early, but the expansive nature of his talent meant that he never stopped experimenting with different media.)
Picasso’s great friendly rival Matisse is represented by “Girl Playing a Piano” from 1925, a charcoal sketch made as a dry run for a painting, as well as a drawing of his daughter Marguerite done the same year. The charcoal sketch feels hurried and smudgy; it cries out for the color of the the finished painting, while the drawing of Marguerite is simple and perfect as it stands - the mutual affection between artist and child comes through beautifully.
There’s also one of the piquant Delacroix sketches of Morocco that did so much to inspire a whole school of art devoted to North Africa at the end of the 19th century. As for Dufy, you could pick him out of an artists’s lineup as French, even without the colors that make him so vivacious - perhaps too much so.
And amidst all the star power, there are some unhearalded pieces that bring you up short and remind you that quality is not necessarily a brand name business. Marie Laurencin, who served as Apollinaire’s muse for years, painted a watercolor that is reminiscent of nothing so much as a lush design for a ballet that I’d love to see. An 1895 charcoal drawing by the unheralded Leon Augustus L’Hermitte of a peasant mother nursing her baby reminds you that the French furthered what the Dutch started - they gave intimacy to art.
“Dessins: 100 Years of French Drawing”: Through July 7 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, Mizner Park, Boca Raton. Information: bocamuseum.org