Leonardo da Vinci (January–April 1989)
Leonardo on Painting
Michelangelo Draftsman DC (October–December 1988), and, in revised form, as Michel-Ange Dessinateur at the Louvre, Paris (May 13–July 31, 1989)
The first public exhibition of a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci took place in Florence around 1500. According to Giorgio Vasari, writing fifty years later, Leonardo, who had been asked by a patron for an altarpiece, instead made a cartoon of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, “which not only filled all the artists with wonder, but when it was finished men and women young and old continued for two days to crowd into the room where it was exhibited, as if attending a solemn festival, to see the marvels of Leonardo, which astonished all those people.” By modern standards the success of the exhibition seems modest enough, but Vasari evidently thought it remarkable that members of the public as well as artists had gone to see a drawing, even a particularly elaborate one like Leonardo’s cartoon. He would have been much more surprised by the crowds at the recent exhibitions of Leonardo and Michelangelo, held in London and Washington respectively, not because these artists are still so much admired after more than four centuries, but because most of the exhibits were drawings.
During the Renaissance, interest in drawings was largely confined to artists, who found in them ideas for their own work and lessons in technique. Raphael, for instance, once sent Dürer a preparatory figure study in red chalk, but there is no indication that his patrons would have wanted such things. Outside the profession, the only types of drawing in demand were cartoons for panel paintings or occasionally for frescoes and tapestries, and highly finished studies made as works of art in their own right. Leonardo produced some for favored clients and friends, and Michelangelo made many more. After his death these presentation drawings, as they are now usually called, were greatly prized by collectors, unlike his preparatory drawings for paintings and sculptures, which are now generally regarded as among the supreme masterpieces of Renaissance draftsmanship. In the middle of the sixteenth century the one notable collection of this kind of material was assembled by Vasari, himself a painter, as a visual counterpart to his history of Italian art.
Even in the seventeenth century, which saw the gradual creation of major collections of drawings, taste was slow to change. Thus Rubens, a painter who more than most revered the great masters of the past, seems to have had no compunction about extensively retouching drawings that he owned. In much the same way the great collector Everard Jabach employed a group of artists to “improve” many of the items in his collection. Their intervention went far beyond the requirements of conservation, being based on the idea that the most desirable drawings were the most highly finished.
The behavior of Jabach or even Rubens now seems little better than vandalism. Today we value drawings precisely for their unfinished quality, for their freshness of observation and apparent spontaneity of expression. We enjoy the evidence they provide of how an artist worked and the unique insight they seem to offer…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.