Book Review : The Encounter : Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt

Art historian and Museum Bookstore friend, Nigel Ip (founder of the  Flâneur of the Arts blog) reviews The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt and finds it a good all-around introduction to this understudied area of portraiture. The book is by Tarnya Cooper and Charlotte Bolland and is the companion book to the exhibition held at the National Portrait Gallery, London, 13 July – 22 October 2017.
Our thanks to the National Portrait Gallery for providing a review copy of this book.

Books on portraiture are notoriously the same. They usually focus on paintings and sculptures rather than drawings. Oftentimes, they are the subject of an exhibition or the discussion is geared towards a monograph of a select individual or group of artists. Therefore, it is not surprising to find a lack of literature on portrait drawings specifically, especially the present volumes choice of period: 1400-1600.

The Encounter - book review

The two essays in this book approach portrait drawings from two different perspectives. Tarnya Cooper considers the role of portraiture and ‘presence’ in Renaissance theory and practice. Although there was an underlying preoccupation with rendering figures and objects in a convincing and natural manner, mere external likenesses were not enough to convey inner meaning – ‘man’s special characteristics, mind, intelligence, memory and understanding’, in the words of Desiderius Erasmus. Using Albrecht Dürer’s drawing of Erasmus (c.1520) as an opening example, this portrait is a surviving record of an encounter between the German artist and the Dutch humanist in the summer of 1520 in Antwerp and later Brussels. The drawing is mentioned five years later by Erasmus in his writings on 8 January 1525:

‘I too would like to be painted by Dürer. Indeed, who would not wish a portrait by such a great artist? But how to go about it? He had begun in Brussels, using charcoal, but has probably long since forgotten me.’

The desire to be painted expressly by Dürer is revealing of more than a simple wish for a likeness to be replicated in paint. It is an appreciation of the artist’s unique tactile skill, observational attention, and maniera (manner) – the Renaissance equivalent of artistic style. The unfinished quality of most portrait drawings adds to this appreciation. A portrait drawn by Annibale Carracci himself is still going to be different to one drawn by someone in his studio.

The Encounter book review

Cooper’s essay succinctly introduces the reader to the artist’s workshop and the preparatory role of different kinds of drawings for various commissions. Garzoni (workshop assistants) would have learnt to draw by copying other drawings, especially those of heads. Once proficient enough, they would have moved on to copying sculpture and then life drawing, often posing for each other. Drawing from life was a fundamental part of a young artist’s training and this practice also provided them with figure studies and detailed drawings, highly valuable for use in large compositions. Different materials also fulfilled unique aesthetic purposes, such as red chalk for creating soft skin tones, metalpoint for fine details, and coloured papers to enhance light effects.

Encounter book review 

Portrait commissions in the Renaissance were heavily reliant on accurate drawings of their sitters. Many of these sitters were only able to pose in front of the artist or an assistant for one sitting due to distance and other commitments. The resulting drawings were then used for reference for making the painted portrait. However, these were never intended for public viewing. Instead, they were originally destined to be scrapped after the painting was done.

The circumstances and role played by portrait drawings is useful for an exploration of the concept of presence in the Renaissance. As Cooper writes, the ‘idea of presence is difficult to define and subject to the viewer’s experience in reading art objects, personal knowledges, values and beliefs.’ She considers immediate likenesses as an important factor in creating presence in drawings. Unlike the underlying idealisation and polish of finished paintings, drawings were not conceived as finished artworks. Thus, they had greater freedom to capture extraneous visual material in an informal manner, useful for replicating accurate likenesses and the physical circumstances between artist and sitter. Rembrandt’s figure studies are so sketch-like you could imagine he jotted down their appearances in a flurry, selecting only their most characteristic features.

The Encounter book review

Presence also entails the sitter’s psychological character and emotional connection with the viewer. Many portraits typically show the sitter looking at the viewer, breaking the barrier between the world within the image and the real world we inhabit. As viewers, we feel as if we are really looking at Domenico Beccafumi himself or meeting Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s young boy with a wide collar (c.1635). This strategy also applied to large altarpieces where saints acted as intermediaries between us and the Virgin Mary, acknowledging us with a glance from within the painting. Other portraits show their sitters looking away from the viewer and sometimes this creates a more playful relationship between sitter and viewer. Formal portraits in profile often deter any chances for interaction, whilst Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait of Mary Zouch(?) (c.1533) looks timidly to the side. Overall, it is the power of the visual language to create emotive and psychological responses between sitters and viewers that really evokes a feeling of real physical presence.

For Jeremy Wood’s essay, the crux of it deals with a specific kind of connoisseurship that contributed to the growing popularity of portrait drawings as collector’s items, focusing on British collections. Many of these came from large Italian collections (e.g. Padre Sebastiano Resta) and were often acquired in bulk by English collectors, eventually creating a transition between private collections and public museums. This popularity was also, in part, due to the influence of reproductive printmaking which allowed for the distribution of portrait drawings by Anthony van Dyck and Holbein the Younger in multiple, printed form. A particularly important set of these prints is Francesco Bartolozzi’s engraved coloured facsimiles of Holbein the Younger’s chalk drawings of courtiers from the reign of Henry VIII, used to illustrate an 18th-century collection of biographies by Edmund Lodge of the depicted sitters. These were the very same drawings Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke, had acquired from Charles I in exchange for Raphael's small painting of Saint George and the Dragon (c. 1506), now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Herbert later gave the drawings to Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, from whom Charles II acquired and restored them to the royal collection in 1675.

However, drawings fell into two kinds of categories: finished and unfinished. Collectors were very much interested in the former, being comparable to miniature paintings and visually more informative. Informal sketches – those we now perceive to be more intimate – had very little appeal. The only collectors who could truly appreciate these unfinished drawings were the practitioners themselves, such as Peter Lely, Jonathan Richardson the Elder, and Joshua Reynolds. Wood presents a very brief distinction between the finished quality of a Rosso Fiorentino drawing of a woman with an elaborate coiffure (c.1530) and the unrefined sketch of the head of an unidentified man (c.1600), once thought to be by Domenichino and now attributed to Annibale Carracci. Though concise and revealing, the scope of Wood’s essay and potential for greater explorative depth is sadly stunted by the narrow choice of case studies, leaving much to be desired. It feels as if one has only simply scratched the surface of this fascinating journey of portraiture’s rise to fame.

The arrangement of the catalogue entries differs very little from the exhibition itself. A major deviation in the book is the inclusion of a section entitled ‘Oil sketches: drawing in paint’. It contains only two works, both in private hands: Annibale Carracci’s Bearded Old Man (c.1590), sold at Sotheby’s in July 2017, and Peter Paul Rubens’ Man Wearing a Turban (c.1608). These represent studies of heads painted in oil in preparation for a subsequent finished painting, such as Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi (1628-29) in the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Like drawings, they are not finished and sometimes they were painted on paper. The advantage of these oil sketches over traditional drawings was their potential for expression through colour.

The Encounter book review

Overall, the catalogue entries are very descriptive and seamlessly lead into brief anecdotes regarding the object’s function and historical context. The book is well-illustrated with page-sized reproductions and essential external comparisons are also included as part of the illustrations, providing readers with convenient visual access to the points of discussion. A glossary near the end also provides readers with definitions for jargon (e.g. recto, verso) and materials like prepared paper. This catalogue is a good all-around introduction to this understudied area of portraiture during the years 1400-1600, addressing both their aesthetic qualities and the history of collecting. It is likely to become an important foundation for future research into portrait drawings in general.

For a review of the National Portrait Gallery exhibition, click here.

Nigel Ip is an art historian and founder of the online blog Flâneur of the Arts.