Lessons from Old Masters

WHAT are drawngs for? It's a reasonable question. Not all drawings have the same function. They are not all quick sketches from nature. They are not all first ideas for a grand composition. They are not all private experiments. Nor are they all different stages of preparation for finished paintings. Some drawings can, for instance, be categorized as ``studies for stock.'' So writes Jaap Bolten of the Print Room of the University of Leiden in his introduction to a travelling exhibition of Old Master drawings from this remarkably well-endowed but rarely exhibited collection of about 12,000 drawings.

These studies would be drawings made so the artist's studio would be well stocked - like a larder with food - with drawings that could, for example, be pressed into service when an urgent commission came along. Such drawings might be of figures in certain postures that could be used or adapted as saints in altar pieces.

Dr. Bolten also uses the label ``model for a print'' to describe a further kind of drawing. This would be drawn specifically as a guide for a printmaker (who was by no means always the artist himself) on which to model his engraving, woodcut, or etching. Such drawings would be very exact and precise, as strict indications to the printmaker - whose function was really to reproduce, more or less for advertising purposes, the works of a master.

But the 101 Leiden drawings selected for traveling, all of them Netherlandish, none later than the mid-19th century, are mainly in another category still - that of the finished drawing. This is known as the ``presentation drawing,'' or, in Bolten's phrase, the ``Picture Drawing.''

This type of drawing, considered a collectible work of art in its own right, has a history that goes back at least as far as Raphael and Michelangelo in the High Renaissance, at the beginning of the 16th century. At that time the status of drawings as valuable insights - into not merely an artist's practices, but close to the sources of his inspiration - gained ground.

EACH drawing in the exhibition is anatomized in a catalog note by someone closely connected with the Institute of Art History at Leiden: either staff members, older students, or former students. Thus the show itself is an extension of the actual purpose of the collection: to be a teaching resource. That students at Leiden can come into intimate contact with such a wealth of Old Master drawings must be invaluable. There is no form of reproduction, however superb, that can substitute for the close experience and examination of actual drawings. The three drawings shown here are all from the Netherlands. Flemish artists of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries were in varying degrees influenced by Italian art.

Bartholomeus Spranger traveled to Italy, where he was influenced by the work of Correggio and Parmigianino - outstanding proponents of the so-called ``Mannerism'' of the 16th century. Although born in Antwerp, Spranger worked, after Italy, in Vienna and then, finally, in Prague. His ``Bust of a Goddess'' in brush and brown ink with dark brown, ocher, and red wash and heightened with white, is securely dated 1595.

This decorative, allegorical figure displays a delight in the classical. It is drawn with considerable confidence and carried to a point of finality. It is instilled with the love of intricate costume and enjoyment of the theatrical that are characteristic of the Mannerist period.

Anton Boschloo, who wrote the catalog note for this drawing, concludes that as there is no evidence of a print or painting based on it, and because it is so definitely finished, signed, and dated, it is probably an ``autonomous drawing that stands on its own.'' He adds that similar drawings by Spranger are known, some with inscriptions that indicate the artist liked to present them as gifts.

Jacob de Wit's ``Woman and Child with a Coal-Pan'' is also described as a ``Picture Drawing.'' It certainly has a considerable degree of finish. De Wit was an outstanding Dutch ceiling-decorator of the 18th century.

THOUGH de Wit was born in Amsterdam, he studied for two years in Antwerp. It was in this Flemish city that he encountered the most powerful influence of his career - the work of Rubens. The Leiden drawing is not at all De Wit's original work. It is, in fact, a direct copy of part of a painting by Rubens.

There was no intent to deceive on De Wit's part. He wrote on the back of the drawing that he had made it in 1739 after the painting by Rubens. His desire to copy the 17th-century Flemish master was probably twofold: to learn as much as he could from Rubens by following and examining each nuance of the original work, and at the same time to reproduce the Rubens for the pleasure either of himself or a client.

``Original'' copies by good artists, as well as prints, were a way that works of art were disseminated and known more widely.

The drawing in ink, pencil, and wash of tree trunks by De Gheyn is an exception to the rule of finished ``Picture Drawings'' in this selection from Leiden.

Though it is an accomplished piece of work, Gerda Gehlen in the catalog considers it to be a study of nature, or an ``exercise.'' She mentions the verse writings on art by Karel van Mander, De Gheyn's older contemporary - in particular his advice to young artists that they should ``become conversant with characteristic tree-trunks,'' which, he goes on, ``are heavy at the base and slight at the top. Show a distinction between the pale, thin birches and limes, and let the wrinkled oak bark be overgrown with creeper and green ivy.'' Though De Gheyn seems to have been drawing the scaly and furrowed bark and twisting root-spread of his trees in the general spirit of these ideas, it isn't possible to tell their particular species. Gerda Gehlen believes De Gheyn was working, as was common practice, ``from the mind,'' or memory.

The aim was to avoid a too slavish imitation of nature and to give the individual artist's own inventiveness due significance. The fascination of this concentrated depiction of a vigorous natural detail, drawn with obvious relish, is that it strikes one first as boldly ``realistic'' - as observed on the spot - and only afterward do its careful contrivance and artistry show up.

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