Tuesday, June 11, 2013


The Courtauld Gallery, London, 14 June to 9 September 2012

The Frick Collection, New York, 2 October 2012 to 27 January 2013

This exhibition, MANTEGNA TO MATISSE: MASTER DRAWINGS FROM THE COURTAULD GALLERY, presented a magnificent selection of some sixty of its finest works. It offered 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 Courtauld last displayed a comparable selection of its masterpieces more than twenty years ago and this exhibition brought the collection to new audiences nationally and internationally.

The exhibition opened with a group of works dating from the 15th century, from both Northern and Southern Europe.

An exquisite and extremely rare early Netherlandish drawing of a seated female saint from around 1475-85 is rooted in late medieval workshop traditions (fig. 1 - see citations below).

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 (fig. 2). 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 draughtsmanship in the 16th century. At the heart of this section of the exhibition was

Michelangelo’s magisterial The Dream (fig. 3). 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 (fig. 4). 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 16th century.

Drawn approximately 100 years later in around 1625,

Guercino’s Child Seen From Behind retains the remarkable freshness and immediacy of momentary observation (fig. 5). Guercino was a compulsive and brilliantly gifted draughtsman. Here the red chalk lends itself perfectly to the play of light on the soft flesh of the child sheltering in its mother’s lap.

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 (fig. 6).

The exhibition offered a striking contrast between this modest domestic image and Peter Paul Rubens’s contemporaneous depiction of his own wife, the beautiful young Helena Fourment (fig. 7). Celebrated as one of the great drawings of the 17th 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. In its imposing presence, mesmerising skill and subtle characterisation, it is the equal of any painted portrait.

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 (fig. 8).

Drawing after the life model and antique sculpture was considered essential in the 18th and 19th 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’, 1813-14, represents the highest refinement of a precise yet expressive linear drawing style rooted in the academy (fig. 9).

Outside the academy, drawing could offer the artist a means of liberating creativity.

Goya’s Cantar y bailar (Singing and dancing),
1819-20, comes from one of the private drawing albums which the artist used to inhabit the world of his dreams and imagination.

Canaletto’s expansive and meticulously composed View from Somerset Gardens, looking towards London Bridge is one of several highlights of a section exploring the relationship between drawing and the landscape.

This group stretches back as early as Fra Bartolomeo’s Sweep of a river with fishermen drawn in around 1505-09, and also includes a particularly strong selection of landscapes from the golden age of the British watercolour.

The interest in landscape is nowhere more powerfully combined with the expressive possibilities of watercolour than in the work of J.M.W. Turner. His late Dawn after the Wreck of around 1841 was immortalised by the critic John Ruskin, who imagined the solitary dog shown howling on a deserted beach to be mourning its owner, lost at sea (fig. 10). For Ruskin, this was one of Turner’s ‘saddest and most tender works’.

The Courtauld collection included an outstanding selection of drawings and watercolours by the great French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists for whom the Gallery is most famous.

Apples, Bottle and Chairback is one of Cézanne’s finest late works in any technique (fig. 11). Here we see the artist pushing watercolour to its extreme through his extraordinary intuitive but masterful handling of successive layers of coloured washes over luminous white paper.

Another highlight of this group was the equally remarkable large crayon drawing by Cézanne’s younger contemporary, Georges Seurat. His standing female nude materialises in an almost unfathomable manner from an intricate web of curving crayon lines (fig. 12).

Gainsborough imagines Landscape with Cattle on a Road Running Through a Wooded Valley.

From the arts desk
(images, links added):

Drawing here offers up its unique formal attributes in a succession of exemplary pieces. Movement and deftness is a recurring sensation in the details, in the tiny horse and cart in Van Gogh’s

A Tile Factory (1888) where the fleet gait of the horse and the broken, uneven line of the rider’s mid-air whiplash contrast with the typically thick and spiky hatchings that set the scene.

It’s remarkable what can be achieved with such limited means. Rembrandt’s fluid and dense curling lines confer weight in his figures’ clothing while light nib scratches adorn the lit faces of his

Two Men in Discussion, One in Oriental Dress (1641).

In Toulouse-Lautrec’s Au Lit (c.1896) a sparse jumble of lines map bed sheets and compact into a woman’s head gazing towards us. It feels intrusive to look back at her, such is drawings’ capacity for powerful immediacy.

As obvious as it would seem, it’s still surprising how much some of these drawings resemble their makers’ paintings. The spikey Van Gogh is a case in point, as is

Manet’s La Toilette (1860) with its frontally lit hard-edged realism...
The exhibition concluded with work by the two greatest artists of the 20th century, Picasso and Matisse, who reinvented the art of drawing for the modern age.

The Courtauld’s drawings collection is largely the result of a series of remarkable individual gifts. They include the drawings presented by Samuel Courtauld alongside his collection of French Impressionist paintings, the bequest by Sir Robert Witt of some 3,000 drawings in 1952, and Count Antoine Seilern’s Princes Gate bequest which, in 1978, brought many of the most famous individual drawings into the collection. Additionally, the works in the exhibition reveal rich and intriguing earlier collecting histories in which artist collectors such as Peter Lely in the 17th century and Thomas Lawrence and Joshua Reynolds in the 18th century feature alongside some of the great princely and connoisseurial collectors of Europe.

Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from The Courtauld Gallery
was organised under the auspices of the IMAF Centre for Drawings which was established in 2010 to support the study, conservation and public enjoyment of The Courtauld’s collection.

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition was prepared in collaboration with The Frick Collection and features twenty authors contributing entries on individual works in their specialist areas, often with new technical research undertaken at The Courtauld.

Interesting reviews


2. http://www.culture24.org.uk/art/painting%20%26%20drawing/art389833


1. Workshop of Hugo van der Goes (c. 1440-82)
A seated female saint, c. 1475-85
Pen, point of the brush and grey ink,
heightened with white on green prepared paper, 230 x 189 mm
© The Courtauld Gallery, London

2. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
Studies for a Saint Mary Magdalene
c. 1480-82
Pen and brown ink, 139 x 79 mm
© The Courtauld Gallery, London

3. Michelangelo Buonarrotti (1475-1564)
The Dream (Il Sogno), c. 1533
Black chalk, 398 x 280 mm
© The Courtauld Gallery, London

4. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569)
Kermesse at Hoboken, 1559
Pen and brown ink, 265 x 394 mm
© The Courtauld Gallery, London

5. Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (1591-1666)
Child seen from behind, c. 1625
Red chalk with stumping, 301 x 211 mm
© The Courtauld Gallery, London

6. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
Saskia with one of her children, c. 1635
Red chalk, 141 x 106 mm
© The Courtauld Gallery, London

7. Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
Portrait of Helena Fourment, c. 1630-31
Black and red chalk heightened with white, pen and ink
612 x 550 mm
© The Courtauld Gallery, London

8. Charles Joseph Natoire (1700-1777)
Life class at the Académie royale, 1746
Watercolour, chalk (black) on paper
454 x 323 mm
© The Courtauld Gallery, London

9. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)
Study for ‘La Grande Odalisque’, 1814
Graphite, 185 x 254 mm
© The Courtauld Gallery, London

10. J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851)
Dawn after the wreck, c. 1841
Watercolour and gouache, 251 x 368 mm
© The Courtauld Gallery, London

11. Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)
Apples, bottle and chairback, c. 1904-6
Graphite and watercolour, 462 x 604 mm
© The Courtauld Gallery, London

12. Georges Pierre Seurat (1859-1891)
Female Nude, c. 1881
Conté crayon and pencil, 630 x 484 mm
© The Courtauld Gallery, London