According to Jean Bonna, the Geneva-based collector whose treasure trove of master drawings is now enlivening the National Gallery of Scotland, the urge to buy art becomes “a disease that is very difficult to cure”. But Bonna has no intention of seeking treatment. A born collector, he began by acquiring books, whose illustrations ignited his interest in old master prints. Then, about 20 years ago, he started to collect drawings and he now has an impressive array of some 400 works.

Far from seeking out a high degree of finish, Bonna explains that “what really seduces me is the fact that they are generally the first idea of an artist”. And the spontaneity that excites him leaps out at us early in the show. Raphael’s red chalk “Study of Soldiers in The Conversion of Saul” belonged for several centuries to the Devonshire Collection at Chatsworth House. Bonna, who thrives on making “very quick decisions”, must have jumped at the chance to buy this drawing in 1998. Three young soldiers rush forward, shocked by the plight of Saul, who has tumbled from his horse in amazement. Gesturing wildly, their energy is intensified by Raphael’s slashing chalk – an energy lacking in the stodgy Vatican tapestry for which this study was made.

Oddly, Bonna ignores this dynamism when he singles out two qualities that appeal to him in a drawing: grace and harmony. Yet from the outset, this exhibition enlivens us with sudden, unexpected moments when an artist’s linear mark-making takes flight.

In the case of Fra Bartolommeo, whose ink drawings of rural scenes are among the first autonomous landscapes in the Italian Renaissance, the surprise erupts in the sky. His study of farm buildings, perched on a ridge with a haystack, seems at first to be the epitome of calm. Yet this is challenged by the swift ascent of birds above the farm rooftops. Defined with deft strokes of the pen, they give the image a spirit of unleashed spontaneity.

The ponderous frames imposed on so many of these drawings threaten to stifle their vitality. But if we focus hard on the images, our efforts are rewarded at every turn. Take Andrea del Sarto’s “Mother and Child”, a study for a fresco called “The Miracle of the Relics” in the church of the Santissima Annunziata, Florence. Incisively defined by red chalk strokes, it depicts the instant at which the child tries to free himself from his mother’s arms. Del Sarto catches the infant’s impulsiveness and accentuates it by summarising the mother’s face in a sequence of swift, essential contours. Mouth open, eyes alarmed, she appears almost shocked by the attempt to evade her embrace.

After such vitality, we too may feel shocked by the mother and child in Géricault’s “Study for the Italian Family”. Drawn around 1816, it shows a boy eating a grape as he turns anxiously towards his mother. Stretched across her lap is another child, who appears to be dead or dying. She gazes down at him with a look of sorrow. Géricault, fascinated by the impoverished families he found begging in Italian streets, gives this scene a sense of sculptural solidity. It stirs memories of a Pietà, and the staff held in the mother’s hand recalls the use of the same item in gravestone carvings.

Another memorable scene comes from Géricault’s compatriot Manet. His pastel portrait of Madame Loubens, a family friend, is tender and delicate, suffused with the artist’s affection. Weakened by illness, she poses in convalescent garments among sheets and pillows, with one hand propping up her head. There is a darting, nervous quality to Manet’s pastel as he concentrates, above all, on whiteness, emphasising Madame Loubens’ vulnerability. Her solidity appears on the verge of dissolving, and this phantom-like quality must signify Manet’s concern for his sitter. But the fragility also echoes Manet’s own failing health. In 1883, soon after producing this portrait, he died at the age of 51.

Degas, who also drew Madame Loubens, is generously represented. The earliest drawing, “A Woman in Abruzzese Costume”, was produced during his youthful visit to Italy, when he exclaimed in a notebook: “Ah! How doubt and uncertainty tire me!” But there is no sign of them in this assured pencil study, where the statuesque monumentality of a heavy-lidded woman is defined with ease. Even so, Degas’s dissatisfaction led him to react against the Ingres-like classicism in his contemporaneous “Portrait of Adelchi Morbilli”. Three decades later, in the late 1880s, we find him using chalk over charcoal to convey the vigour of a young woman bent over a basin washing her neck. Brusque and raw, the drawing sacrifices all his earlier suavity in search of a new, visceral immediacy.

Odilon Redon’s transformation as an artist is still more dramatic. For half his career, he concentrated on images as monochrome as “Spring”, where a shadowy profile emerges from the branches and vegetation all around. Convinced black was the most important colour, Redon only discovered the palette’s other possibilities when he was 50. At this point, in the 1890s, he became infatuated with colour. His “Sailing Boat with Two Passengers” (“La Barque”) is a marvel, seducing us with its image of a vessel carrying two travellers towards a mysterious destination under an immense sky flecked with an abundance of colours.

No wonder Bonna has not been able to find a cure for his “disease”. What’s more, as you survey the pictures gathered here, you feel that it may be catching.

Exhibition continues until September 6

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