Looking at Drawings: An Introduction (1)

This essay was written in 2005, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art had a wonderful exhibition of drawings by Peter Paul Rubens. That one’s long gone, but if you’re in New York City between September 29, 2017 and January 7, 2018, you can visit the exhibition at the Morgan Library of master drawings from the Thaw Collection. It should be a great place to study what I’m discussing in this series of posts.

Why look at drawings?

Looking at drawings is like seeing an artist thinking. Most people don’t rework the School of Athens or the Sistine Chapel ceiling in their minds: it’s difficult to imagine a top-notch painting in any way other than its familiar finished state. An artist’s sketches bring home the truth that the finished work wasn’t predetermined, and didn’t spring full-blown from the artist’s mind. Viewing drawings gives you a glimpse into what the artist tried, modified, and rejected before settling on the final version.

Another reason to look at drawings is for the practice it gives you in looking at art. To look at a work of visual art for an extended period and enjoy every detail, you need to be able to shift your focus at will from the broadest issues (theme, historical context) down to the most minute details. In reading literature, it’s the difference between considering the theme and looking at word choice or syntax. It’s being able to move from the concrete to the general and back again: being able to see the size and shape of the forest while still identifying the separate trees.

Looking at drawings is excellent practice for learning to study details. You’re seeing the artist working out details of one or two figures, so you can practice observing such details without being distracted by the broader significance of the finished work of art.

Where to go to look at drawings

Since drawings will fade if exposed to light, most museums don’t keep them on permanent exhibition. This essay was inspired by an exhibition of about a hundred of Rubens’s drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The drawings dated from his student days in Rome, when he sketched for his own edification, through the end of his career, when he often made quick sketches for paintings that assistants helped him produce.

The web pages for the MMA’s Rubens exhibition have been taken down, but the catalogue is available as a hefty paperback for a hefty $45. It has excellent reproductions, as you’d expect from any recent MMA publication. Dover Library’s book of 44 Rubens drawings (reproduced in black and white) is available from Amazon for under $6. Although its images fall short when the original drawing was in several colors, it’s cheap and in large format (8.5 x 11″).

Pictures at an(y) exhibition

A few words of advice if you’re going to an exhibition of drawings:

  1. You’ll need to get close to the drawings. Try to visit when the museum’s not crowded.
  2. Unless you’re an inveterate multitasker in a chronic hurry, go through the exhibition once to look at the drawings (which ones do you like best? why?), then go through a second time to read the labels and/or listen to the audio guide. This is the visual equivalent of waiting to read the scholarly introduction until after you’ve finished the novel. It’s  distracting to have someone telling you what they think is most important about a drawing before you have a chance to look at it yourself.
  3. Limit the time you spend intensively studying drawings. You should never get to the point where looking at another drawing becomes an unpleasant duty rather than a scintillating pleasure.
  4. If you find yourself interested in drawings, check out museums or galleries in your city that carry representational art. While it’s fantastic to look at drawings by Rubens or Michelangelo, you can hone your skills at observation by looking at artists who are less well known – and you may find new artists whose work you’d like to explore.

1st type of drawing: Drawings for study

In the seventeenth century, 200 years before the invention of photography, an artist who wanted to remember and study another artist’s work had no choice but to draw a copy of it. Such copying was recognized as an invaluable learning tool as early as the Renaissance. Through the nineteenth century, it was a required activity for students in art academies.

Rubens’s sketch of the Libyan Sibyl from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, ca. 1601-1602

By 1598, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) had served his apprenticeship and been accepted into Antwerp’s guild of painters. But from 1600 to 1610, he traveled from his home in the Spanish Netherlands to Italy and Spain in order to study works of great artists.

The MMA’s Rubens exhibition included Rubens’s drawing of a figure from the Sistine ceiling, plus a photo of the figure as it appears on the ceiling, plus Michelangelo’s own drawing of the same figure.

Left: Copy of the Libyan Sibyl by Rubens, ca. 1601-2. Center: Libyan Sibyl by Michelangelo on the Sistine Ceiling, 1508-12. Right: Drawing for the Libyan Sibyl by Michelangelo, 1508-12; at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo MetMuseum.org

In the drawings, can you see a difference between what Michelangelo and Rubens chose to include and emphasize? Michelangelo sketched the figure without clothes, and emphasized the muscles with heavy shading. On the same sheet of paper he tried out different positions for the Sibyl’s toes (who’d have thought that mattered?) and tested another pose for the torso. Rubens, in his sketch from the finished ceiling, gives the same emphasis to the folds of the Sibyl’s dress as he does to the muscles of her back.

You can learn a lot about an artist by what he includes in a copy of another artist’s work – or by what he leaves out. Although they’re the same figure in the same pose, there’s no way you’d ever confuse Rubens’s and Michelangelo’s drawings of the Libyan Sibyl. It’s like hearing two friends give you different accounts of the same party, or reading newspaper stories reporting the same political event from opposite ends of the spectrum.

Rubens’s sketches of a Centaur Tormented by Cupid, early 1600s

In the 17th century, this Greek sculpture of a centaur tormented by a a cupid (ca. 330-100 B.C.) was discovered in Rome. For a larger image, see here; for more on the sculpture, see the Furietti Centaurs.

Old Centaur Tormented by Cupid, ca. 330-100 B.C. Paris, Louvre (formerly in Rome).

Rubens saw this sculpture in Rome and sketched it from two angles, focusing on on two different aspects. In one of them, he seems to be studying anatomy.

Rubens, sketch of centaur tormented by a cupid, early 1600s. Wallraf-Richartz-Museum – Fondation Corboud, Cologne

He has meticulously copied the peculiar structure where the human and horse bodies join, indicating the different sections of the body not by hard lines but by subtle variations in shading. He has paid great attention to the pose of the centaur’s arms (tied behind his back) and the body of the cupid riding his back. Rubens chose to make the shadows on the centaur and the cupid rather faint, so they don’t obscure the anatomical details.

In the sculpture, the centaur’s hair and beard are drilled, and the chest hair is lightly incised (zoom in here). Rubens drew the hair and beard very loosely and gave the centaur neatly curling chest hair. This suggests that even at this relatively early date, Rubens felt free to add or change elements in the works he was copying.

Here’s Rubens’s second sketch of this sculpture.

Rubens, sketch of centaur tormented by cupid, early 1600s.

In this one, Rubens seems more interested in the emotional  relationship between the cupid and centaur: he’s chosen an angle that allows him to show the expressions on both their faces. He’s also  been more faithful here about copying the hair: the centaur’s heavy locks look like drilled marble.

Below is a sketch from the end of Rubens’s time abroad – he returned to Antwerp in 1610. Take a minute to look at how easily he suggests details of the face, hair, and hands. There’s more on that coming up in the next post, on drawings as composition studies for paintings.

Rubens, studies of heads and hands, ca. 1610. Vienna, Albertina.


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