Figures Seemingly Alive

The summer holidays may well be over, however, the National Portrait Gallery’s summer exhibition The Encounter is only half way through. Open until 22nd October 2017, a rare collection of drawings from several Renaissance and Baroque artists are on display at a fee of £10 (members free). Emphasis needs to be made on the word drawings or, to make it more transparent, the synonym sketches may be more appropriate.

Rather than showing the priceless paintings and famous works of European artists, the gallery has sourced from collections throughout Britain the initial drawings of the accomplished draughtsmen. Providing a fresh understanding as to how the artist begins a portrait and the materials used, these sketches bring forth a feeling of humanness – imperfect – and a sense of the private encounter between the artist and the sitter.

Due to their sensitivity to light and resulting fragileness, it is unlikely that viewers will recognise the drawings in the exhibition because they rarely get put on display. Since many are initial sketches rather than finished artwork, it is plausible to suggest that viewing The Encounter is a once in a lifetime opportunity.  The majority of people depicted in these portraits are unknown, being referred to as Seated Young Girl (Wenceslaus Hollar, 1635), Woman Wearing a Hood (Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1485-90) and so forth.

Unfortunately, the exhibition’s strapline is a little deceptive. “Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt implies that one will see drawings by the famous Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). To their credit, the National Portrait Gallery has located a study by each of these outstanding artists but, alas, that is all. Rather than misleading art lovers and tourists by enticing them with two well-known names, it could have been more appropriate to subtitle the exhibition “Drawings from the Masters 1430-1650” or something of that nature.

If the name of an artist needed to be used to advertise this exhibition, Hans Holbein the Younger would have been a far more appropriate choice. Not only is a Holbein the first portrait to be seen on display (John Godsalve c.1532), a whole section compiled of eight drawings has been devoted to the artist. In fact, Holbein the Younger is treated as though he were the most accomplished portraitist in Europe during the sixteenth century.

Hans Holbein (1497-1543) was a German painter and designer who was trained by his own father, Hans Holbein the Elder (1465-1534). By the age of 19, Holbein was being commissioned for portraits, notably the mayor of Basle and his wife. By the late 1520s, Holbein was the leading artist in Basle, producing murals, altarpieces and stained glass windows alongside his more intimate canvases.

Disturbances caused by the Protestant Reformation caused a decline in the amount of work offered, so Holbein moved to London. By 1536, Holbein was working for Henry VIII, painting his portraits and those of other notable people in the Tudor family. Whilst in the residence of the king, Holbein had the opportunity to mix with a whole range of people of different class. Over 100 of his preparatory studies survive today, evidencing his range of sitters from merchants to those of nobility.

“Stranger, do you want to see figures seemingly alive? Look at these, brought forth from Holbein’s hand.”

– Nicholas Bourbon, 1538

A contemporary of Holbein, Nicholas Bourbon, is noted for proclaiming that the artist’s drawings strikingly brought people to life, easily revealing the mood and personality of each sitter. From boredom to alertness, Holbein drew those both confident and unsure, capturing an accurate representation and varying atmosphere.

It is not the artists who are the main focus of The Encounter; it is the techniques and the evidence that the artist was working directly from life, that has the greater appeal. Some drawings may almost look complete, however, the majority were implemented at speed, thus preserving a momentary contact with the sitter.

All the artists featured in the exhibitions were working in various European countries between the 15th and 17th centuries. Art historians can divide the past into art movements due to evidence in changing style and themes, but with these swift sketches, it is possible to see the reasons for certain developments. The human race is constantly evolving, inventing new contraptions and utensils in an attempt to make life simpler. Between the years focused on by the National Portrait Gallery, new materials were becoming readily available for artists, such as paper, ink and chalk.

Previously, a limited quantity of material restricted the amount of practice and preparation an artist could undertake before commencing on the final product. With paper becoming more abundant, the opportunity to try out different methods and ideas was leapt upon by the masters and their apprentices. It also allowed students to copy other works as a way of learning and honing their skills – something which most likely attributed to the development of an art movement in which the majority of work resembled a certain style.

By being able to make preparatory studies for paintings, particularly portraits, the artist was allowed to scrutinize the human anatomy and understand the importance of proportion when drawing a body. Like today’s sketchbooks, sheets of paper were easily carried around meaning that an artist could sketch wherever he pleased, thus observe people unawares and in different positions from the traditional seated posture.

It was not only the production of paper that benefited artists, the availability of chalk became extremely beneficial. Looking at the portraits in the gallery, many have been produced with red chalk and some in black. This was a recommendation at the time because chalk was a lot easier to correct than the more permanent pen and ink, which was also popular. To erase a mistake in the proportion of their sitter, artists were instructed to rub a small piece of bread over the surface. This lifted the chalk from the paper, allowing new lines or shading to be redrawn correctly.

With these new techniques and methods in place, less pressure was placed upon the sitter to remain still for a considerable length of time. A quick chalk drawing allowed the artist to judge the proportions, note down colours and facial expressions, and determine the composition. It is from these initial sketches that many artists began their final painting. This was a particularly convenient way of working when drawing a child, especially one with very little patience and easily bored.

In order to appreciate how useful the new materials were, a video has been provided within the exhibition of a contemporary artist demonstrating a few of the utensils. The tools are also on display in a glass box for visitors to have a closer look. The short film illustrates the way to use these implements, including silverpoint and pen.

Silverpoint was a technique using paper that had been pre-prepared with coloured ground and a metal stylus with a silver tip. Scratches are gently made with the stylus then gradually built up to add strokes and shadow to the drawing. Unlike working with chalk, mistakes could not be erased, thus the instruction to start lightly and only increase the pressure when feeling confident.

Pen and ink were used in much the same way. This time, the paper did not need to be covered with any substances, but a quill needed to be cut to provide a suitable nib. Dipping the quill into ink, the artist then draws lightly on the paper, adding darker strokes later to create the shadows.

Although using medieval techniques, the demonstration is similar to how a student would be taught at school today. This goes to show that the master painters were just as human as everyone else. They needed to practice daily to achieve the skills evidenced in their celebrated artworks. Artists such as Leonardo and Rembrandt were not exempt from making mistakes; their fantastic paintings did not just occur over night.

“Do not fail, as you go on, to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is it will be well worth while, and will do you a world of good.”

-Cennino Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook, c1400

The Encounter is an exhibition that will appeal to those with a greater interest in art than the average tourist. Students and artists alike may find regarding these drawings advantageous to their own studies or career. It will certainly boost the confidence of those aspiring to produce portraits as good as artists such as Holbein. Instead of focusing on the final artwork, it is important to create studies, whether quick or detailed, in order to determine exactly how the portrait is going to look. It is also natural to make mistakes.

Although not a traditional exhibition of famous artists and paintings, the National Portrait Gallery has given the public a deeper insight into past European techniques and allowed each artist to be appreciated as a hard-worker rather than someone who was naturally perfect from birth. It is certainly reassuring to discover that artists from 400 years ago faced the same set of challenges contemporary artists encounter today.

The Encounter has been curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper and Dr Charlotte Bolland.

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4 thoughts on “Figures Seemingly Alive

  1. Pingback: Shattered World, New Beginnings | Hazel Stainer

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