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The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt

Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt

Drawing is an art form that can easily be taken for granted, or not very seriously. It can be seen simply as preparation for a completed picture, like the foundations for a building, or as having been eclipsed by newer art forms - principally photography - thereby consigning the form to art history’s junk room. This exhibition – the first by the National Portrait Gallery to feature its collection of European drawings – should make us think again.

Why do drawings from European Old Masters matter? What is their importance? The answer to these questions lies partly in the material they cover, but before we respond we have to rid ourselves of another seemingly powerful preconception. The phrase ‘Old Masters’, with its modern overtones of set-piece formality, suggest that art of that period concentrated solely on senior figures in Church and State. But artists such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Annibale Carracci and Leonardo da Vinci didn’t limit themselves to subjects from society’s higher echelons. They drew nurses and shoemakers, friends and art pupils. They gave – literally – a face to the socially faceless and accorded recognition to people who, because of their status, might otherwise have remained unknown to us. These drawings are a window to the social history of the painters’ times.

As Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, points out: “While our collection includes Hans Holbein the Younger’s magnificent and monumental ink and watercolour drawing of Henry VII and Henry VIII from c.1536-7, remarkably, the National Portrait Gallery has never staged an exhibition devoted to the practice of portrait drawing during the European Renaissance. While the sitters’ identities are often unknown, their encounters with the artist are preserved in drawings that vividly demonstrate the creative moment that lies at the heart of many of the greatest portraits. Some of the drawings were perhaps never intended to leave the artists’ studios, but are arguably amongst the most engaging and powerful impressions of personal likeness in the history of art.’

The Artist’s Shoemaker by Carlo Dolci c.1630 © The Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth.

But hasn’t the development of photography, combined with Modernism’s rejection of representational art, increased the temptation to think of portrait drawing as artistic old hat?

Dr Tarnya Cooper is Curatorial Director of the National Portrait Gallery and co-curator of this exhibition along with Dr Charlotte Bolland, the Gallery’s Collections Curator, 16th Century.  Dr Cooper says: ‘Part of the appeal in looking at portrait drawings is that they seem to speak to us directly, without embellishment or polish. In contrast to painted portraiture, the graphic process appears unmediated by the artfulness of technique. Some of the portrait drawings in this exhibition were executed at speed - capturing a fleeting moment in time - while others were more finished and controlled, yet appear to have an honesty and integrity that captures a dynamic connection between artist and sitter.’

Young Woman in a French Hood, possibly Mary Zouch by Hans Holbein the Younger c.1533 Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

So Old Master drawings don’t just give us the chance to see people who might have remained in obscurity due to their social status, they also help us to explore what drawing can teach us about the processes of artistic practice and sitting; about the nuts and bolts of getting visual interpretations and representations down on paper. More significantly, the pictures also show how these artists moved away from the use of medieval pattern-books as source material, and began to study the figure and face direct from life. Without that artistic leap, the psychological leap at the heart of photography – the desire to capture reality and the power that goes along with its depiction – might not have been envisaged.

Old man attributed to Lagneauor Lanneau © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

It is perhaps ironic that the very success the Old Masters went on to achieve in art history may have resulted in the sidelining, or indeed neglect, of the groundwork – the drawings – on which their art and fame were based. In the 19th century the advent of Impressionism would further reduce the artistic status of drawing, as it fostered the idea that pictures should be put on canvas straight away – hence its title – without any preparatory work (something which, it has been argued, might not have been always strictly true). The advent of photography, strengthened by its role in depicting leading events in 20th century history – principally wars and their aftermath – arguably led to the demoting of all forms of non-photographic portraiture. But we should remember the words of the artist Jenny Saville: “Drawing is an equation of nature. It’s as instinctive as thinking and is the first physical point of contact in the world of imaginative thinking - whether you’re drawing a head or a map; designing a chair, a building or an iPhone”. Meanwhile, for those still to be convinced of its importance, a study of the work produced by the Old Masters would be a good place to start a reappraisal of this sadly neglected art form.

The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt runs at the National Portrait Gallery from July 13 to October 22. Tickets are £10 with a donation.