Published: November 13, 2012
The Courtauld Gallery holds one of the most important collections of drawings in Britain. Organized in collaboration with the Frick Collection, “Mantegna To Matisse: Master Drawings from Courtauld Gallery” presents a selection of some 60 of its finest works. On view at the Frick Collection through January 27, it offers a rare opportunity to consider the art of drawing in the hands of its greatest masters, including Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Goya, Manet, Cézanne and Matisse.
The exhibition opens with a group of works dating from the Fifteenth Century, from both Northern and Southern Europe. A rare early Netherlandish drawing of a seated female saint from around 1475‸5 is rooted in late medieval workshop traditions. It was also at this time that drawing assumed a new central role in nourishing individual creativity, exemplified by two rapid pen and ink sketches by Leonardo da Vinci. These remarkably free and exploratory sketches show the artist experimenting with the dynamic twisting pose of a female figure for a painting of Mary Magdalene. For Renaissance artists such as Leonardo, drawing or disegno was the fundamental basis of all the arts: the expression not just of manual dexterity but of the artist’s mind and intellect.
These ideas about the nature of drawing achieved their full expression in the flowering of draftsmanship in the Sixteenth Century. At the heart of this section of the exhibition is Michelangelo’s magisterial “The Dream.” Created in 1533, this highly complex allegory was made by Michelangelo as a gift for a close friend and it was one of the earliest drawings to be produced as an independent work of art. More typically, drawings were made in preparation for other works, including paintings, sculptures and prints.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s engaging scene of drunken peasants cavorting at a festival in the Flemish village of Hoboken was drawn in 1559 in preparation for a print. Whereas Michelangelo sought ideal divinely inspired beauty in the human figure, Bruegel here revels in the disorder of everyday life.
Despite the important preparatory function of drawing, many of the most appealing works in the exhibition were unplanned and resulted from artists reaching for their sketchbooks to capture a scene for their own pleasure †Parmigianino’s “Seated woman asleep” is a wonderful example of such an informal study surviving from the early Sixteenth Century. Drawn approximately 100 years later in around 1625, Guercino’s “Child seen from behind” retains the remarkable freshness and immediacy of momentary observation.
No less appealing in its informality is Rembrandt’s spontaneous and affectionate sketch of his wife, Saskia, sitting in bed cradling one of her children. The exhibition offers a striking contrast between this modest domestic image and Peter Paul Rubens’s contemporaneous depiction of his own wife, the beautiful young Helena Fourment. Celebrated as one of the great drawings of the Seventeenth Century, this unusually large work shows the richly dressed Helena †who was then about 17 †moving aside her veil to look directly at the viewer. Created with a dazzling combination of red, black and white chalks, this drawing was made as an independent work of art and was not intended for sale or public display.
The central role of drawing in artistic training is underlined in a remarkable sheet by Charles Joseph Natoire from 1746. It shows the artist, seated in the left foreground, instructing students during a life class at the prestigious Académie Royale in Paris. Drawing after the life model and antique sculpture was considered essential in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. One of the great champions of this academic tradition was Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. The beautiful elongated forms of the reclining nude in his study for the “Grand Odalisque,” 1813‱4, represents the highest refinement of a precise yet expressive linear drawing style rooted in the academy.
Outside the academy, drawing could offer the artist a means of liberating creativity. Goya’s “Cantar y bailar (Singing and dancing),” 1819′0, comes from one of the private drawing albums that the artist used to inhabit the world of his dreams and imagination.
Other highlights of the exhibition include Canaletto’s expansive and meticulously composed “View from Somerset Gardens, looking towards London Bridge”; J.M.W. Turner’s late “Dawn after the Wreck” of around 1841; and “Apples, Bottle and Chairback” by Cézanne.
The Frick Collection is at 1 East 70th Street, near Fifth Avenue. For information, 212-288-0700 or www.frick.org .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm