M. Stephen Doherty

M. Stephen Doherty
The editor of Plein Air magazine at work

Friday, February 12, 2010

Drawings by Old Masters: Lasting Influences

Joseph with Jacob and His Brothers (fragment of modello fr the tapestry Joseph Recounting his Dream of the Sun, Moon, and Stars), by Agnolo Bronzino, ca. 1546-48, black chalk, traces of squaring in black chalk on off-white paper glued onto secondary paper support, 17 1/4 x 13 1/16. Collection the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England. [Note the way Bronzino adapted his drawing of the figure in the lower right corner from Michelangelo's drawings]

Study of Male Nude, by Michelangelo, ca. 1504, black chalk highlighted with white gouache, 10 5/8 x 7 3/4. Collection the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, Austria.

Copy of Michelangelo's The Bathers in the Battle of Cascina, by Aristolie da Sangallo, ca. 1542, oil on wood, 30 1/8 x 51 1/4. Collection of the Earl of Leicester, Holkham Hall, Norfolk, England.

Eroded Riverbank with Trees and Exposed Roots, by Annibale Carracci, ca. 1590-92, pen and brown ink, 15 7/8 x 11 1/16. Collection the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, New York. [This rare study of nature from life was created by an artist who, with his his brother and cousin, founded the Accademia degli Incamminati school of art in Rome].

Two exhibitions of Old Master drawings that are currently on view in New York explore several interesting issues, including the influences of two of the most important figures in the history of art, Raphael and Michelangelo, and the changing opinions about their art. The Morgan Library & Museum is showing drawings in Rome After Raphael (through May 9, 2010), and The Metropolitan Museum of Art is displaying The Drawings of Bronzino. The Morgan show "takes Raphael as its starting point and ends with the dawn of a new era, as seen in the innovations of Annibale Caracci;" while The Met's exhibition (through April 18, 2010) presents "nearly all the known drawing by, or attributed to, this leading Italian Mannerist artist."

Even though Raphael lived a relatively short life (1483-1520), his elegant, sweet representations of biblical figures and monumental compositions had a profound influence on generations of painters; and while Michelangelo lived a long and productive life (1475-1564), his depictions of muscular, powerful figures changed the way artists presented the human form -- even into modern times.

While generations of artists found inspiration of the work of Raphael and Michelangelo, critics were not nearly as impressed with the way their influence played out. Bronzino's reputation seems to have suffered greatly from the changing opinions about figurative art based on the Renaissance example, and it wasn't until the 1960's that scholars developed a sincere appreciation of Bronzino's talents.

So what insights can we gain from reviewing the work in these two exhibitions? One is that there is great value in looking at the way Old Masters presented the human figure; composed paintings of figures within architectural spaces and in the landscape; and used drawings as a way of defining the images they would expand in paintings, tapestries, and frescoes. Another is that it is perfectly acceptable, prudent, and valuable to copy some of the poses and compositional schemes worked out by great artists like Raphael and Michelangelo. Finally, it is important to remember that critics will love something one day and hate it the next. Artists must lead and critics must follow, not the other way around, because artists search for a truth while critics deal with a reflection of that truth.

1 comment:

  1. I wish some critics and curators would read especially your last paragraph and take it to heart. There is a whole new breed of these folks who believe the concept behind the artist work is more important than what the work looks like. And from there it is a short step for the critic or curator to insert themselves into the creative process by declaring which are the "important" concepts artists should be focusing on.

    Fortunately, there's a whole lot of artists and collectors who don't take the critics so seriously.

    And yes, drawing shows like these rock. One can learn so much about painting by looking art artists' drawings.