500 Years of Drawing at the Met Reveals Roots of Modernism


Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) was literally a Renaissance Man. Born in Arezzo, Italy, he was a successful painter and architect who bequeathed to history a tome that laid much of the groundwork for what we consider art-history writing today: Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Vasari also displayed a keen appreciation for drawing, an art form that sparkles with the speed of execution and rough beauty we now associate with modernity.

In the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “Leonardo to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Robert Lehman Collection,” wall labels describe drawings from the medieval era created on sheets of animal skins “bound together into model books that functioned as archives of copied designs.” These volumes might contain renderings of various kinds of flora or fauna or architecture, which apprentices in a master’s workshop would copy into other works. As art historian Francis Ames-Lewis has written, “Certain figure types, studies of heads, and even landscape motifs recur in a range of paintings in the workshops of both Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, [which suggests] transmission of motifs through copy-drawing.” But as paper, a support more easily prepared than animal hides, became available in the mid-1400s, drawing got more improvisatory, a way for the eye, mind, and hand of the artist to explore variations of composition, volume, and narrative. Artists’ personal sketchbooks became more individualistic as they gained the means to execute landscapes on the spot or make quick, multiple studies of live models. Vasari summed up the medium’s importance to the expansion of naturalism and humanism that characterized the Renaissance revolution in the visual arts: “Drawing is the necessary beginning of everything, and not having it, one has nothing.”

In Taddeo Zuccaro’s 1557–58 pen and ink-wash drawing The Martyrdom of Saint Paul, quickly brushed-in shadows heighten the drama of the apostle’s beheading. The composition, a study for a ceiling fresco in a Roman church, had to be resolved in advance, as the artist could not retract his moves once they were solidified in paint and plaster. The drawing is filled with lithe movement and street-level grit—stomachs hang over the belts of slouching Roman legionaries—which becomes more rigid and illustrative in the final painting, palpable atmosphere sacrificed for didactic narrative.

Many of the drawings exhibited here are credited simply as “circle of” or “follower of” master artists of the day, examples of the necessary, years-long apprenticeships taken by highly accomplished artists whose names are lost to history. A depiction of Christ being flagellated evinces the influence of Leonardo da Vinci’s sfumato technique on an unknown Northern Italian artist; through delicate shading, soft blending of tones, and fine modeling, artists were attempting to capture the three-dimensionality they perceived in the real world, that indefinable join of flesh with the surrounding air. Paper was still such a valuable commodity in the late 1400s that even an artist as successful as Leonardo sometimes reused a sheet. In his Study of a Bear Walking, Sketch of a Forepaw, we can see the virtuoso working out the anatomy of his subject (perhaps after dissecting the animal) atop a faint earlier drawing of a seated woman. Such palimpsests reveal Leonardo’s restless search for aesthetic innovation—how exactly does a shadow curve around the volume of a figure or object?—and his scientific investigation into flying machines and human anatomy. Although he was not a prolific painter, Leonardo created thousands of exquisitely detailed and visionary drawings, which resonated with artists in his own time as well as such modern provocateurs as Ralph Steadman. While most famous for his ink-splattered collaborations with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Steadman devoted an entire 1983 book to Leonardo’s genius.

In the Met show, Renaissance imagery from north of the Alps gets a bit wiggy. A drawing from the Circle of Rogier van der Weyden, rendered on a curved arc of paper, depicts men pushing chairs around with shovels, a study for a sculpture that played, according to the wall label, on a Dutch pun for a chairlike contraption used to punish felons. Head of a Bearded Man Wearing a Turban (circa 1510) is notable for its heavy, weathered features and stylized curls portrayed on gray-toned paper, on which shadows are deepened with ink and highlights delineated with white gouache, and for the artist’s posthumous moniker, “Master of the Death of Absolom.”

More than a hundred years later we get Rembrandt’s fast and furious red-chalk sketch after Leonardo’s mural The Last Supper. In the Dutchman’s study (1634–35), the apostles are depicted through swift, angular contours, rearing back in shock or turning on one another as Jesus announces the betrayal that will soon befall him. Detail is sacrificed to mood as quick outlines search for a dramatic angle to Christ’s head—ghostly locks of hair appear behind a more emphatically resolved countenance wearing a headdress—while fluttering hands punctuating the horizontal composition convincingly express concern and agitation. Rembrandt, who never traveled abroad, worked from a Milanese artist’s engraving of Leonardo’s painting. This formal translation allowed Rembrandt’s imagination license to rework the scene. In the lower right corner, Rembrandt includes a wriggling dog not found in Leonardo’s original, as well as a large canopy over the central figures replacing Leonardo’s more austere and classical interior. Rembrandt also added an emphatic signature, which some scholars speculate may have been an attempt to prevent his own sketch from being confused with one by the earlier master. Or perhaps he was simply proud of a strong composition that had come into its own as a psychologically dynamic portrayal of one of Christianity’s most dramatic events.

It is in Rembrandt’s nonchalance about finish that one sees a reflection of the aesthetic of our own age. This is evident in Georges Seurat’s 1882–83 Conté crayon drawing of a foal, in which nothing is clearly defined but the ambience is understood. The animal’s dark form is framed by shadowy tree trunks, its bushy tail, angled rear legs, and long raised neck implying youthful energy and motion, as if considering one last romp before twilight descends. Where Leonardo took an almost scientific interest in delineating his bear, Seurat is satisfied to scribble out glimpses of experienced life almost as swift as the shutter of a camera, his gradated atmospherics as evocative as any blurred photograph.

Similarly, in his 1895 Street Scene in Paris, the Swiss artist Félix Vallotton conveys the hurly-burly of a modern metropolis with figures scurrying to the edges of the frame as a woman in a broad hat seems about to ram her garment box directly into the viewer. Purple, red, and blue gouache provides colorful accents to long black dresses pulled into sharp angles by the wind. Here, as the 20th century dawns, ideas of pattern and abstract form trump naturalism. The nude woman in Henri Matisse’s 1923 charcoal drawing is a naturalistic depiction of fleshy equipoise but also, through a mirror reflection, a witty conceptual conflation of the physical world as seen in both three and two dimensions.

In some ways this exhibition can be seen as a curtain raiser to the Met’s show of more than 130 Michelangelo drawings, which opens in two weeks. But the earliest studies in the current exhibition were executed around 1420, a half-century before Michelangelo was even born. The fascination here is that such fragile entities—sheets of paper traced over with lines—have survived half a millennium, and that this ephemeral medium continues to trigger artistic revolution, over and over again.

Leonardo to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Robert Lehman Collection
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Through January 7