The Endearing Way of Simple Lines
SO great is the charm and spontaneity of drawings that many of us prefer them to paintings - we can supply the colors with our own inner eye. For some unfathomable reason, the line of the pencil or pen is in itself usually more beautiful and penetrating than that of the brush. Ninety-nine times out of 100 the spontaneous sketch is more vital, inspired, and graceful than the oil that often follows it. How to translate the qualities of the drawing to the medium of painting is an as-yet-unresolved mystery which has vexed the schools for centuries.
When considering drawings, it is illuminating to turn to the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest master of this art. The notebooks are divided into many categories: philosophy, light, optics, anatomy (both human and animal), mathematics, military affairs, and myriad other topics.
We know that he painted relatively few pictures, of which many have perished, while his superb drawings were more preservable and have generally survived, protected in books or boxes.
The tone of Leonardo's notebooks is clear and exact, unsentimental, pointing out observed phenomena, replete with measurements and proportions, and rich in succinct advice.
For instance: ``Make figures with such action as may be sufficient to show what the figure has in mind ...''; ``The thoughts turn towards hope'' (about a caged bird); ``The senses are of the earth, the reason stands apart from them in contemplation''; ``Intellectual passion drives out sensuality.''
TWO prominent drawing collections were shown recently at the National Academy of Design in New York City: ``Masterful Studies: Three Centuries of French Drawings'' from the Prat Collection, and a selection of Henry Fuseli's drawings sent from Auckland, New Zealand. The latter were thought to have originally been a gift from the artist to his friend William Blake.
Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) can not seriously be compared to Leonardo, yet in his lesser way was a remarkable and articulate artist, an intellectual, a traveled man of commanding talents, and a linguist. His drawings were compared to Michelangelo's because of their depiction of strong, muscular figures, and to Raphael's sweet-faced individuals.
Born in Zurich, the son of an artist, he studied literature and history, becoming enamored of the Romantic Movement sweeping the continent, so that he loved to illustrate myths and epic tales.
To please his father, Fuseli took a theological degree and was ordained as a Zwinglian minister. The religion was unsuited to one of his temperament, however, and he soon left its confines. Energetic, passionate, versatile, he was early a successful artist, his draftsmanship and sense of composition enormously admired.
His decision to pursue this path was furthered by portrait artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, who reportedly advised him to study in Rome, which, he said, would enable him to become the premier painter of his age.
AFTER eight years in the Eternal City, Fuseli returned to London, his home for the rest of his life. In 1780, he was elected to the Royal Academy where he became active as a teacher, painter, and writer.
``The eye tinges all nature with its own hues,'' he wrote. ``Color owes its effect sometimes more to its position and gradation than to its own intrinsic nature.''
``We may deduce that the schools of Greece recognized all one element of principle: that acuteness and fidelity of eye and obedience of hand form precision; precision, proportion; proportion, beauty....''
Readers of Charlotte Bront"e's ``Jane Eyre'' will remember that in the scene where Mr. Rochester looks at Jane's sketches he is astonished by what he sees, having imagined that she could produce only the insipid watercolors generally executed by young girls at that time. Rumor has it that these strange pictures were actually descriptions of some of Fuseli's work, being highly dramatic and gothic.
His composition, ``Undine and Huldbrand'' gives some idea of his style with its wonderful figure drawing, proportions, and dramatic effect.
The Prat Collection drawings, taken from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, afford fine examples of the Baroque, Neo-Classical, Romantic, and Impressionist schools, with many loved names, including Poussin, Delacroix, Ingres, Manet, and C'ezanne, along with their gifted contemporaries. These works cover a wide range of themes - portraits and landscapes, architecture, historical scenes, and myths.
Among them is a ``Sheet of Studies'' by Poussin; each of these small sketches is worth careful scrutiny and each has been much discussed by critics who identify them with finished paintings.
For instance, the group of buildings with the storks on the roofs are studies for his ``Rest on the Flight into Egypt.'' A work-page of this sort seems to bring us nearer to the mind of the artists.
Watteau's ``Woman Kneeling Beside a Cradle,'' though small, clearly portrays both the weary woman and the animated baby. The woman is thought to have been a Savoyarde, perhaps; at that time the Savoy was a wild and desolate region, its people almost nomads, very poor, socially and economically oppressed.
``Angel Turning to the Left'' by Antoine Coypel is a sketch in black, white, and red chalk on blue paper squared with black chalk - it was a study for his great ceiling of the chapel at Versailles, the whole scene entitled ``The Father Eternal Promising the Coming of the Messiah,'' which was finished in 1709, and much admired. The figure of the angel demonstrates Coypel's ability par excellence - ``he likes elegant flying figures and combines with grace and ease red, black, and white chalk.''
Grace and ease are emphatically characteristics of master drawings; perhaps it is these qualities which endear them to us. When we look at them these sentiments are invoked and we yearn to see more.