Drawing used to be a common skill.

Not just artists, but soldiers, architects, engineers and many others were trained to draw. Every academically trained artist could draw like an old master. In fact, while we equate academic training with drawing from sculptures, artists were previously trained by copying their masters’ drawings. This is a great way to learn, but it rendered the market for drawings particularly perilous and bound to scholarly expertise as well as that wrinkle-nosed notion to which modernism seems allergic – connoisseurship.

“Fine Lines: American Drawings from the Brooklyn Museum” is a mixed a blessing. For scholars and American drawing amateurs, it’s an extraordinary opportunity to see many excellent and rarely seen works. But for the public, it’s not so clear. So many obscure artists obscures the goals of the show: The PMA’s short list of big names in “Fine Lines” includes Violet Oakley and William Trost Richards; the catalog cover is a work by J. Carroll Beckwith; and the show’s 74 artists include multiple works by folks like Edwin Blashfield, Daniel Huntington, David Johnson, Blanche Lazzell, Edward Penfield, Elihu Vedder, Abraham Walkowitz and Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin – hardly household names.

There certainly is a place for minor American artists, as the PMA proved with its extraordinary 2012 Mildred Burrage show. But “Fine Lines” leans so heavily upon arcane artists that it feels more like a scholarly exercise than an exhibition geared to the public. This is pushed even further by a small room in the show (and a chapter in the fine catalog) called “The Conservator’s Eye.” Any art – paintings, sculptures and otherwise – has conservation issues. Binding drawing to the technical practice of conservation only pushes it deeper into the realm of exclusivity.

The subdued lighting throughout the exhibition (drawings are fragile, after all) furthers the feel of Victorian constriction.

Drawing has become the intellectual face of contemporary art today because we see it as motivated: It’s up to something. It has agency. So it’s too bad “Fine Lines” is organized by Dewey Decimal subjects like “Recording Anatomy” and “Exploring Nature” instead of by functional intentions, such as sketches for paintings or sculptures, finished portraits, student works, illustrations, travel sketches and so on: It’s easier to understand a drawing when you know what it’s for.

For example, Sanford Robinson’s Italian sketchbook is a type of common pre-snapshot visual travel diary. Daniel Huntington’s figure studies (separate drawings of body, muscles and then skeleton) reprise a standard academic student exercise. Blanche Lazzell’s six drawings illustrate a process of abstraction from a drawing of a town – an approach tied to the controversial/misleading word “abstraction.”

“Fine Lines” is at its best with context. Marsden Hartley’s “Mount Sainte-Victoire,” for example, is a study in Cézanne that offers insight to the PMA’s Hartley mountain painted in Cézanne’s style but with a Fauvist palette.

Winslow Homer’s three works in “Fine Lines” all rise to the top. His outline profiles of children reveal his unparalleled feel for shape in “The Swimming Hole.” And his study for “The Unruly Calf” hits the surface/space metaphor even better as a drawing: A boy has a calf on a rope that he pulls around a pole; he is on a plane parallel to the surface of the drawing and the calf pulls away at an angle in space – it’s a paradigm of 2D art and a moment of modernist genius.

Some of the most beautiful drawings are pre-modernist, such as John La Farge’s 1889 study for a church window. Yet while the traditional works are technically superior, the modernist drawings stand better on their own – since self-explanatory, internal logic is endemic to modernism.

Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s charming and creative “Baby and Toy Cow” is testament to the Maine artist’s greatness and past popularity. You might not like Gaston Lachaise’s aggressive sexuality, but the power of his “Back of a Nude Woman” is undeniable. William Glackens’ wildly raucous illustration of Christmas chaos is as exciting as it is hilarious. Robert Henri’s perched nude is a virtuoso coquette. Elie Nadelman’s “Head” might appear like cartoon-lite, but a longer look reveals that its brilliant economy is the product of refinement – not accident. John Twatchman’s pastel landscape hits the quiet atmosphere of his best paintings. With his profile of a woman and a sketch of his daughter (Dahlov Ipcar) reading, we see William Zorach at his best. My favorite work in the show, however, is Max Weber’s “The Dancer” – an economically brilliant performance in just a few exuberant curves.

Comparing it to the work we are accustomed to seeing in Maine, we have to wonder if the relative weakness of “Fine Lines” is a curatorial issue or if the BMA’s collection just isn’t that good (and we can’t go through the BMA’s 3,000 drawings like curator Karen Sherry did). Where is John Marin, Frederick Church, Mary Cassatt, Arthur Dove or Whistler? After all, scores of works on paper by these greats are on view at Maine’s largest museum – the Colby Museum of Art – which is free to the public. (One of my main reservations about “Fine Lines” is that it costs $17 to see – including a $5 exhibition surcharge; but it does make the $50 membership sound pretty good.) Colby features one of best collections in the world of this period of American art, but that is our local standard.

Still, if “Fine Lines” sounds like your cup of tea, then join me: I will be going back to see it again and again.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

dankany@gmail.com