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Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt.

Drawings for Paintings in the Age of Rembrandt

National Gallery of Art | Washington, D.C. October 4, 2016-January 2,2017

A remarkable exhibition of drawings from the Dutch Golden Age was, curiously enough, advertised with a painting.

Despite the apparent irony of that decision, Michiel van Musscher's An Artist in His Studio with His Drawings (fig. 1) was an inspired choice that made instantly visible two important themes of the show: the ways in which drawings were used as professional tools by artists in the seventeenth century and how the deceptive realism of seventeenth-century Dutch painting obscures their artifice. Drawings--manipulated, reversed, and recombined--form the basis of the seeming realism of what has often been regarded as the art of everyday life. Curated by Arthur Wheelock, Ger Luijten, and Peter Schatborn, this large and unusual exhibition allowed for careful study of drawings. The works included were not primarily finished drawings, such as those intended as gifts or presentation pieces, but rather the tools of the trade. That they survive at all is remarkable; that the National Gallery of Art (NGA) and the Lugt Collection assembled so many of them in one place for public examination was a monumental undertaking greatly to be admired. The accompanying scholarly catalogue, the first on the topic, situates the drawings with several essays by specialists in the field and illustrates, in color, the displayed works.

Musscher's painting depicts an artist, dressed in black and seated at an easel in a room that bears little resemblance to a studio. He has spread his drawings around his feet, and demonstrates for the viewer how drawings were used as source material for painted works. The exhibition took this as a central theme: all the stages of the artist's preparatory process are made visible through a range of images. Works by Jan van Kessel, Jan van Goyen, and Jacob van Ruisdael demonstrate the necessity of sketching from nature before a final composition was created in the studio. Drawings of models by artists like Abraham Bloemaert (fig. 2), Hendrick Avercamp, and Salomon de Bray reflect studio and portrait practices. Nicolaes Berchem's fascinating and rare reversed drawing demonstrates how artists easily copied and reversed motifs to expand their portfolio of compositional building blocks. A sketch by Thomas de Keyser shows a rare example of a grid applied to a drawing to ease the transition to canvas, and an unfinished painting by Gonzales Coques quite literally reveals the underpainting and preparatory work once the transfer of the drawing to panel or canvas is complete. A particular asset for visitors to Washington was a drawing accompanying the National Gallery's newly acquired Caspar Netscher genre scene, Woman Feeding a Parrot (1666). Such drawings were tools of a different sort, created after the completion of the painting and preserving a record of compositions for the artist. Not only did this unexpected inclusion tie the exhibition to the permanent collection but it illuminated yet another function of drawings. Every stage of artistic production and a variety of techniques were documented, exposed to the viewer rather as if a magician were showing an audience not only where a vanished coin has gone but how it got there.

One of the great strengths of the exhibition may have at first seemed like a weakness: though the title might have implied an emphasis on Rembrandt, there was very little Rembrandt included. Rembrandt was represented by a handful of examples which demonstrated specifics about his working process (fig. 3). Rembrandt's approach to drawing is a rich and productive topic--and one that has received its due attention in other exhibitions and publications. This exhibition expanded the discussion beyond Rembrandt and also included around fifty other artists who have attracted less popular attention. Some of those, like Ruisdael (fig. 4), would be more familiar to the average museum-goer while others such as Cornelis Bega or Leendert van der Cooghen may have been entirely new. Broadening the general perception of Dutch art from Rembrandt, Hals, and Vermeer to a more representative sampling of the thousands of artists living and working in the major urban centers of the Dutch Republic was an important gesture towards a better understanding of early modern visual culture. For the dedicated viewer, the exhibition also provided an enriching parallel to paintings in the National Gallery's permanent collection. The diversity of artists produced an invigorating array of subject matter, covering the majority of the genres produced for the Dutch market. The installation of the exhibition loosely grouped the drawings by genre by room. It began with a somewhat eclectic room of drawings, including several meticulous studies of natural materials alongside the sketchbook of Jan van Kessel and works by Abraham Bloemaert and Hendrick Avercamp, among others. The second room focused on Rembrandt and other artists more closely associated with his studio and style. This was followed by a room of land- and seascapes and culminated in genre scenes and city views.

One of the other aspects of the exhibition that greatly enriched the experience was the National Gallery's decision to include both printed and digital materials to supplement specific drawings. The curators were fortunate to be able to display in some cases both the preparatory drawings and a canvas they helped to produce. This included, for example, Abraham Bloemaert's Landscape with Dilapidated Buildings and Figures (1629, Hamburger Kunsthalle) and two different drawings that the artist combined to create the huts and trees. This installation was particularly gratifying as two drawings of trees by Bloemaert, one executed in pen and one in chalk, were hung next to each other in a corner. The comparison of the same hand working on the same subject in different media provided edifying results. Elsewhere in the exhibition, when paintings could not be included alongside drawings, reproductions of the paintings were added to the wall text. This was particularly helpful in insistently reminding the viewer that the objects on view were a means to an end and never existed in a vacuum. The number of drawings that could be tied to specific painted compositions was remarkable. Moreover, the inclusion of supplemental digital materials, also available permanently via the National Gallery's website, was a fantastic counterpoint to the humble pencil. A series of canvases and panels had been studied, scanned, and photographed under a range of lights. Visitors could view digital images of the underdrawings and the surface, sliding back and forth to make comparisons in addition to looking at the paintings themselves. A range of pages from van Kessel's sketchbook was similarly available for study. While these were an asset, they also represented practical limitations: tucked in a corner at the rear of the gallery, they were easy to miss.

To return to Musscher: the other notable aspect of his painting is the green curtain that divides the realm of the painter from the realm of the viewer. A common motif in seventeenth-century Dutch painting, it is partly a winking nod to how some paintings were actually shown behind curtains to protect against light and dust. However, the drawn curtain was also a motif used to refer to the genius of artistic production and to the artificial nature of the image. Derived from Pliny's story of Zeuxis and Parrhasius, two artists competing to see who was more skilled at creating the illusion of reality, the curtain was a mechanism by which the painter deliberately drew attention to their own skill and to the artifice of art. For much of the twentieth century, Dutch art was framed as an uncomplicated representation of everyday life. Musscher--and Rembrandt, Vermeer, and others besides--remind us that all paintings are artificial constructions. This exhibition revealed the underdrawing of that construction by showing us the material remnants of the process. Even the most freely painted landscapes, such as those of Molijn and van Goyen, were here demonstrated to be artificial, planned, and composed of disparate parts. Karel van Mander, writing in 1604, distinguished between painting 'naer het leveri (from life) and 'uyt den gheesf (from the imagination). If this exhibition made any large claims about Dutch art, it was that Dutch artists, even those painting fruit, fish, flowers, landscapes, or other 'humble' subject matter 'naer het leven,' observed, manipulated, and recreated the world through their art, blending life and imagination. That the mechanisms of doing so are in the end so invisible is one more reason to admire them.

Saskia Beranek

Colby College

Caption: Figure 1. Michiel van Musscher, An Artist in His Studio with His Drawings, mid-1660s, oil on panel, 18 1/2 x 14 3/16 in. (47 x 36 cm). (Photo: Liechtenstein, courtesy the Princely Collections, Vaduz-Vienna)

Caption: Figure 2, left. Abraham Bloemaert, Studies of Arms, Legs, and Heads, early seventeenth century, red and white chalk, some pen in brown ink on paper, 10 1/8 x 6 9/16 in. (25.7 x 16.7 cm). (Photo: courtesy the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Caption: Figure 3, above. Rembrandt van Rijn, Studies of Mary, the Mother of Christ, and Mary Magdalene, 1635-36, pen and brown ink, red chalk, sheet, 7 15/16 x 5 5/8 in. (20.1 x 14.3 cm). (Photo: courtesy the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Caption: Figure 4. Jacob van Ruisdael, View over Amsterdam and the IJ, ca. 1665, black chalk, gray wash, on paper, 3 3/8 x 6 in. (8.6 x 15.2 cm). (Photo: courtesy the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
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Author:Beranek, Saskia
Publication:Art Inquiries
Geographic Code:1U5DC
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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