A Life in Drawing

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Leonardo da Vinci – attributed to Francesco Melzi

It has been 500 years since Leonardo da Vinci died on 2nd May 1519, aged 67, at Amboise in central France. To mark the anniversary, the Royal Collection Trust has curated an exhibition that brings together over 200 of Leonardo’s greatest drawings. Not only are these works of art, but they served as thought processes of the superhuman polymath. With interests including painting, architecture, anatomy, engineering and botany, these sketches provide an exceptional insight into the workings of Leonardo’s mind.

The first drawing featured in the exhibition is a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci with long wavy hair and beard. This is the only surviving representation of the influential genius to survive today, however, it is not a self-portrait. It has been accredited to one of Leonardo’s pupils, Francesco Melzi (1493-1570) who was bequeathed all of his teacher’s drawings. Melzi kept tight hold of every scrap of paper that Leonardo had drawn on, almost as if they were relics. After his death in 1570, they were passed onto the Italian sculptor Pompeo Leoni (1533-1608) who painstakingly mounted them all into at least two albums. By 1670, one of the albums had found its way into the hands of King Charles II (1630-85) and the drawings have remained in the Royal Collection ever since. In the early 1900s, the pictures were removed from the album, stamped with the cypher of Edward VII (1841-1910) and individually framed. There are around 550 of Leonardo’s drawings in the Collection, 200 of which have been specially selected for this exhibition.

Leonardo was born in 1452 near the town of Vinci in Florence, Italy. He was the illegitimate son of a lawyer, Piero da Vinci, and a peasant girl called Caterina. He was raised by his paternal grandfather, however, little else is known about his childhood. Leonardo was educated in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88) and, by the age of 20, was working as a painter in Florence. In 1480, Leonardo received his first big commission, the Adoration of the Magi, however, this remained unfinished by the time he moved to Milan the following year.

As a juvenile artist, Leonardo learnt how to draw using metalpoint. This was a stylus made from either lead, silver, copper or other metals. It was a laborious technique for, in order to make a mark on the paper, the surface had to be coated with a mixture of ground bone ash and glue. By the late 1490s, the method had fallen out of use across Italy.

The older drawings in the exhibition are examples of the metalpoint technique. These include a profile of a young woman wearing a cap, which may have been a preparatory study for a painting that is now lost. Leonardo also used this drawing method to practice and work out compositions before picking up a paintbrush. A sheet of paper containing a study of hands shows how Leonardo experimented with different positions before settling on the one that created the effect he was after.

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Leonardo da Vinci – Virgin of the Rocks, 1503-1506

In 1483, Leonardo received the commission to paint what is now known as the Virgin of the Rocks for a church in Milan. He painted two versions, one which was never installed and now resides in the Louvre in Paris, and the other that was put in place in 1508. The painting has since been moved and hangs in the National Gallery in London.

Leonardo began working on the Virgin of the Rocks by producing a number of preparatory studies. One of these, which is on display, is for the drapery of a kneeling figure. Comparing this drawing to the final painting, it can be noted that the composition changed slightly, however, the study was an experimental sketch for the pose of the angel on the right of the Virgin Mary. The drawing has been produced with a series of brushstrokes, fine hatching and cross-hatching, which was almost unique to Leonardo at the time. Being left-handed, his strokes slant at a different angle to the majority of right-handed artists.

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A horse divided by lines c.1490

During the 1480s, Leonardo entered the service of Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508), the ruler of Milan. He commissioned Leonardo to design a bronze equestrian monument in honour of his father Francesco (1401-66), the founder of the Sforza dynasty. Leonardo began by studying and drawing horses in various positions, such as rearing and walking, from all angles. When satisfied with his design, he built a bigger-than-lifesize model out of clay in order to construct the mould ready for casting. Unfortunately, the bronze needed for the monument was requisitioned in order to build a canon, thus the project was suspended.

Five years later, Sforza was deposed by the French and Leonardo’s clay model was used for target practice by the troops and ultimately destroyed.

Leonardo’s drawings from this period also include designs for weapons, armour and grotesque figures. The latter deliberately distorted the ideals of beauty at the time and, perhaps, are some of the first examples of caricatures.

Before Sforza lost his position as Duke of Milan, he commissioned what would become one of Leonardo’s greatest works, second only, perhaps, to the Mona Lisa. Leonardo was tasked with painting a mural of The Last Supper onto the wall of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. This painting represents the Passover meal Jesus had with his apostles not long before his arrest as written in the Gospel of John.

After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.”- John 13:21 (NIV)

It is thought that Leonardo produced hundreds of sketches, refining his ideas for the final painting, however, only a few survive. Only one compositional sketch remains, showing a couple of ideas he experimented with. The challenge was to fit thirteen figures around a table whilst giving each one a distinctive characteristic. In one sketch, Judas is depicted at the end of the table and in another, he is standing to receive the bread from Christ. In the final painting, Judas has been integrated into the group of disciples.

The exhibition displays some of Leonardo’s initial sketches of some of the disciples, one of which is Judas. The traitor has a hooked nose, close-set lips and a muscular neck. His head is turned away from the viewer to look at Christ in mild surprise. In the painting, Judas’ facial expression appears to reveal his evil intent, however, it is thought this has been added by restorers at a later date.

The sketch of St Philip shows the disciple’s youth, emphasised by his long wavy hair and smooth face. St James also appears to be young with a similar hairstyle. The latter sketch, however, has been produced more rapidly than the others, suggesting it was drawn from a live model. Leonardo also practised the drapes of the clothing the disciples wore, for example, the sketch of St Peter’s arm who, dressed in thick fabric, leans over Judas’ shoulder in the final painting.

Leonardo briefly returned to Florence at the beginning of the 16th century. By now, he was using natural red and black chalks to produce his sketches, as can be seen in the delicate bust of a young child. This is likely a drawing of the Christ Child, although, no evidence of a painting featuring the same figure exists. Also in orangey-red is a study of drapery for the recently rediscovered painting of Christ as the saviour of the world, Salvator Mundi.

In a combination of black chalk or charcoal and ink are a few studies for the head of Leda for the lost painting of Leda and the Swan. In Greek mythology, Leda was a queen of Sparta who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan. Leda then bore two eggs from which hatched two sets of twins: Helen and Polydeuces, and Castor and Pollux.

The painting, which was destroyed in the eighteenth century, is thought to be the only image of the female nude Leonardo produced; however, he was far more interested in the elaborately coiled and braided hair and plants in the foreground than her body. The exhibition also displays a number of plant sketches that indicate Leonardo’s scientific interest in botany.

One of Leonardo’s main reasons for returning to Florence was to paint a huge mural in the Palazzo della Signoria to represent the Battle of Anghiari. The painting had been commissioned by the government to show the victory over the Milanese in 1440. Unfortunately, Leonardo never had the chance to complete the painting and the progress he had made was later destroyed.

What has survived, however, are some of Leonardo’s studies of horses and riders. In some, the horses are running at full gallop, their manes billowing in the wind. In others, the artist has focused on the powerful expressions on the horses’ faces, their lips drew back and eyes wild.

Although Leonardo had nothing to show for the Battle of Anghiari commission, it rekindled an old interest of his: anatomy. Leonardo had begun studying anatomy many years before, however, his sketches were largely inaccurate. He had no knowledge of the circulatory system and believed that veins distributed nutrition to the liver. The heart, he assumed, produced the body’s spirit, which was pumped around the body via the arteries.

From around 1506, Leonardo had access to human corpses from which to study in detail. He was on good terms with a handful of physicians who regarded Leonardo as an anatomist. In the winter of 1507-8, Leonardo performed his first post-mortem on the body of an elderly man in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. He recorded his findings in a series of notes and detailed drawings.

During his first dissection, Leonardo discovered the gastrointestinal tract and appendix. In writing, written backwards in mirror-image so that other people could not easily plagiarise his ideas but more so because, being left-handed, he was less likely to smudge the ink, Leonardo has produced the first description of this structure in Western medicine. He mentions the process of urine from the kidneys through to the bladder amongst other findings.

Leonardo also dissected animals, recording details of their internal organs, such as the lungs. Whilst claiming to have dissected thirty humans, he never performed an autopsy on a female. Nonetheless, he attempted to produce a diagram of the cardiovascular system and organs of a woman by combining the knowledge gained from other dissections, including animal, and ancient beliefs, such as a spherical, seven-chambered uterus.

Although recalled back to Milan where he served French occupiers in a number of ways for about seven years, he continued to work intensively on the anatomy. In 1513, Leonardo moved to Rome under the patronage of Giuliano de’ Medici (1479-1516), brother of Pope Leo X (1475-1521). Despite wanting to continue with his studies, he was not allowed to conduct any more dissections and his anatomical studies came to a halt.

Leonardo was ahead of his time with his anatomy discoveries and his drawings and notes were not fully understood until the 1900s. Although his work did not impact modern developments in biology, in hindsight it is clear that the Renaissance anatomist had learnt the scientific accuracies about the structure of the human body long before anyone else.

One sheet of sketches and jottings made by Leonardo show the musculature in an arm and the veins flowing from the body to the limb. Another sketch details the skeletal structure, revealing the spinal column, pelvis, arm bones and leg bones. There are a few errors on this particular page, for example, an elongated shoulder blade, but on the whole, it was an unprecedented drawing of a human skeleton.

In a heavily annotated drawing of muscles and tendons of a lower leg and foot, Leonardo debunked the theory that contraction of the muscles involved inflation with systemic air. In his drawing of a foetus in a womb, however, he had no real knowledge of the insides of a female’s reproductive system and yet he produced a drawing that looks close to the truth. Leonardo was intrigued that a foetus could fit in the uterus and so, using his knowledge of a cows placenta drew a curled up foetus with the umbilical cord wrapped around the crossed legs. Apart from being in the breech position, this illustration of the foetus is not too dissimilar to contemporary diagrams.

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The Chateau of Amboise c.1517-19 – attributed to Francesco Melzi

From Rome, Leonardo travelled to France after accepting an offer of employment at the court of Francis I (1494-1547), the king of France. By now, Leonardo was 64 years old and he and his assistants were still painting his future famous works including St Anne and Mona Lisa. Settling at Amboise in the Loire valley, Leonardo held the position of painter, engineer and architect to the king. He mainly worked as a designer, producing sketches of architecture, costumes and equestrian monuments. The sketch of the Chateau of Amboise on display, however, was not produced by Leonardo’s hand. It is most likely the work of one of his assistants, the aforementioned Francesco Melzi. Although the style is similar to Leonardo’s the direction of the hatching indicates it was produced by a right-handed artist.

Francis I was a keen party-goer and held several lavish entertainments, for which Leonardo designed costumes. Leonardo went to town with the detail producing designs rich with ribbons, fringes, furs, quilted sleeves and breeches. Clothing ranged from mercenary soldiers’ uniforms to fools and even prostitutes.

Not only did Leonardo design costumes, but his drawings also showed the characters in action, for example, a young man on horseback complete with a lance. This showed how the material would fall as the body moved and may even have been a help to the seamstress. Not all the costumes were elaborate, however; his sketch of a masquerader dressed up as a prisoner involved rags and shackles.

Toward the end of his life, Leonardo became preoccupied with cataclysmic storms, floods and man’s futile struggle against the overwhelming forces of nature. Art historians tend to believe Leonardo was extremely aware of the limited time he had left and was reflecting on some of his greatest creations, which had been destroyed in front of his very eyes, i.e. the equestrian monument commissioned by Sforza. Leonardo understood the impermanence of the world, having studied human anatomy, dissected dead bodies and examined plant and animal life for a number of years.

These sketches of deluges, however, were not created by an elderly man suffering from despair. They were drawn with the eye of a scientist, showing the optical qualities of cloud, rain, water and smoke.

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A description of a deluge, with marginal sketches c.1517-18

As well as drawing, Leonardo wrote detailed instructions about how to draw an accurate deluge.

Let there first be shown the summit of a rugged
mountain surrounded by valleys. From its sides
the soil slides together with the roots of bushes,
denuding great areas of rock. And descending from
these precipices, ruinous in its boisterous course, it
lays bare the twisted and gnarled roots of large trees,
throwing their roots upwards; and the mountains,
scoured bare, reveal deep fissures made by ancient
earthquakes. The bases of the mountains are covered
with ruins of trees hurled down from their lofty
peaks, mixed with mud, roots, branches and leaves
thrust into the mud and earth and stones.

And into the depths of a valley the fragments of
a mountain have fallen, forming a shore to the
swollen waters of its river, which has burst its banks
and rushes on in monstrous waves, striking and
destroying the walls of the towns and farmhouses
in the valley. The ruin of these buildings throws up
a great dust, rising like smoke or wreathed clouds
against the falling rain. The swollen waters sweep
round them, striking these obstacles in eddying
whirlpools, and leaping into the air as muddy
foam. And the whirling waves fly from the place of
concussion, and their impetus moves them across
other eddies in a contrary direction […]

The rain as it falls from the clouds is of the same
colour as those clouds, in its shaded side, unless the
sun’s rays break through them, in which case the
rain will appear less dark than the clouds. And if the
heavy masses of ruined mountains or buildings fall
into the vast pools of water, a great quantity will
be flung into the air, and its movement will be in a
contrary direction to that of the object which struck
the water; that is to say, the angle of reflection will
be equal to the angle of incidence.

Text adapted from Leonardo da Vinci: A life in drawing, London, 2018

This is the writing of a man still of sound mind; a scientist and an artist whose skills complement each other rather than contrast. Leonardo was a great thinker both visually and intellectually, and there has arguably not been anyone since who matches his genius.

By 1518, Leonardo’s health was deteriorating and reports state that he had lost the use of his right arm, which suggests he may have suffered a stroke. His weakness is evident in one of his final sketches, a portrait of an old, bearded man, which whilst not a literal self-portrait may at least be an indication of how he viewed himself: lank hair and rheumy eyes. The chalk lines are shorter and more hesitant than Leonardo’s previous work, suggesting he did not have full control over the chalk.

Leonardo da Vinci passed away at Amboise on 2nd May 1519, leaving all his loose sheets and notebooks to Francesco Melzi. Due to Melzi’s care and protection, and of those who handled them afterwards, the drawings have survived to today, where we can appreciate an insight into the greatest mind of the Renaissance.

The exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing does not display any of Leonardo’s famous works. There are no paintings or complete artworks. Instead, the 200 or so sketches piece together the real man: the artist, the engineer, the botanist, the anatomist, the scientist, the mathematician, the inventor, the geologist, the astronomer, the writer, the historian, the cartographer, the greatest man of all time. We are extremely lucky to have the opportunity to view these drawings when many of his major works have been lost or destroyed.

The chance to view the exhibition of Leonardo’s work in London is possible at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until Sunday 13th October 2019 after which it will move to the Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse. Tickets are £13.50 for adults and it is highly recommended that they are booked in advance online.

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The Renaissance Nude

San Sebastian

Saint Sebastian – Agnolo Bronzino, 1533

Today, we live in a censored world where young minds are shielded from the harsh realities of life and people are quick to complain about things that never once crossed previous generation’s minds. The word “nudity” sets alarm bells ringing and is presumed by many to be synonymous with sexual content. Ironically, despite society trying to block nudity from the impressionable minds of under 18-year-olds, anyone can gaze upon the naked body in public in nearly all art galleries.

Once upon a time, nudity was culturally acceptable, as the Royal Academy of Arts showed in their recent exhibition The Renaissance Nude. The 15th and 16th century was a crucial moment in the history of western art with the birth of the Renaissance period and a renewed interest in the human body as represented in ancient Greek and Roman art. The exhibition explored the use of nudity in art from 1400 to the 1530s, exploring works in a variety of media and produced by some of the most famous names in the business: Dürer, Titian, Raphael, Michaelangelo and Leonardo.

Renaissance is a French word meaning “rebirth” and aptly describes the period when Europe was rediscovering the art and values of the classical world after a long, stagnant period of decline during the Middle Ages, or “Dark Ages”. Not only was the art world affected, the Renaissance saw a number of new discoveries including scientific laws, new religious and political ideas, and sightings of new lands, for instance, America. Therefore, the art shown at the Royal Academy’s exhibition was once a welcome change in a world where people’s minds were being opened to endless possibilities.

The nude flourished in Renaissance art, achieving an increasingly dominant role across Europe. Unlike today where nudity often goes hand in hand with pornography and offensive content, the study of the unclothed body was welcomed by sacred and secular communities alike and produced some of the most magnificent works in existence today. It is Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) who takes the blame for the world’s more prudish attitude to nudity after he ordered concealing draperies to be painted over some of the figures in Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) Last Judgement (1541) in the Sistine Chapel.

One of the first artworks in the exhibition was Jan Gossaert’s (1478-1532) Christ on the Cold Stone (1530). Christ is rarely depicted as fully naked in artwork, apart from as a young child, and in this case, a strip of cloth covers his nether regions. Looking anguished and weary, Gossaert imagines Christ’s demeanour as he awaits his physical ordeal and eventual death. His body is based on the Greek sculptures Gossaert would have seen when visiting Rome, hence the exaggerated musculature.

Religion and art had a tight relationship during the Renaissance and Biblical scenes, such as Christ’s death and resurrection, presented artists with plenty of opportunities to work with the naked figure. As a result, religious subjects became much more realistic than they had been during the Middle Ages as well as more accessible.

As well as Biblical narratives, saints and religious heroes or heroines, were also popular subjects for Renaissance artists. Saint Sebastian (d.288 AD) was one of the more prevalent being the saint of the plague-stricken at a time when outbreaks of contagious diseases were common. Saint Sebastian was killed during the Roman emperor Diocletian’s (244-311) persecution of Christians, initially being tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows, although it was not this that eventually killed him.

Cima da Conegliano’s (1459-1517) version of Saint Sebastian (1502) referenced his martyrdom with a single arrow piercing the right thigh of a young man with glossy hair, who stands naked but for a white cloth concealing his genitals. The youth is composed and appears unaware that he had been shot; nor is there any blood spilling from the wound. Cima replicated the physical beauty of Greek gods in his composition, thus making him appear pure, fit and healthy. The artist has achieved what the German painter Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) urged: to use “the most beautiful human shape” which the ancients had used for their “false gods” when drawing the body of Christ or the saints.

The idea of representing the saints or the holy in the beautiful manner of the ancient Greek artists can be explored further in Dirk Bouts’ (1415-75) The Way to Paradise (1469). This shows one of the possible outcomes of the last judgement in which those who are saved ascend to paradise or heaven. Whilst naked, the figures in the painting have their lower bodies wrapped in pure white cloth and their stature and pure facial features emphasise their godliness. On the other hand, the opposite scenario shown in Bouts’ The Fall of the Damned (1469) shows the victims entirely naked, tumbling down into the infernal landscape. In this instance, the nudity references the shame Adam and Eve felt when they realised they were naked after eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

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Adam and Eve – Albrecht Dürer, 1504

Adam and Eve are undoubtedly the most famous characters of the Bible who allow artists to experiment with nudity. In an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, Eve is about to succumb to temptation and eat the forbidden fruit, as recorded in the Book of Genesis. At this moment, Adam and Eve are unashamed of their nudity, however, Dürer has prudently obscured their genitalia with leaves. Unlike his contemporaries, Dürer tried to avoid using live models, preferring to draw people using a compass and ruler, therefore, creating his nudes geometrically. Although the figures have similar bodies to those in classical art, Dürer was quoted warning his fellow artists, “Your ability is impotent compared with God’s creativity.”

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Bathsheba Bathing – Jean Bourdichon, 1499

Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504) proves that Renaissance art was not limited to the painted medium. As well as paintings, the Royal Academy displayed book illuminations, sculpture and drawings amongst other media. For instance, a French copy of Book of Hours contains an illustration of Bathsheba bathing naked in the open air. In the background, King David can be seen spying on her from the palace window. It is thought that this and similar images were intended to be erotic, wrongly depicting Bathsheba as a seductress rather than a passive victim.

As described earlier, the Renaissance was a time of discovery, and people were exposed to new and old thoughts and religions. Since artists were inspired by classical sculptures, it is no surprise that their subject matter turned to the mythologies of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In a similar fashion, these stories from classical literature allowed artists to continue exploring the nude.

Piero di Cosimo’s (1462-1522) A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph (1500) is fairly typical of the way classical stories are depicted. Despite the sorrowful scene, the landscape, colours and figures have a beauty about them that make them appear otherworldly. The peacefulness of the painting also relates to the scene inspired by Ovid (43BC-18AD) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) in which a nymph has been killed by a wound to her throat. The wound is not gruesome and the nymph appears to have swooned rather than crashed to the ground, almost a graceful death. Yet, nymphs were known for their singing and this nymph will sing no more, hence the peaceful quietude the painting evokes.

The nymph’s nudity links this painting to Bouts’ The Way to Paradise, in which the semi-naked people are portrayed as beautiful and pure. Despite the painful wound to her neck, the nymph’s suffering is nothing like the deaths of those in The Fall of the Damned. The other characters in the painting – a satyr and a dog – are quietly mourning her death, a stark contrast to the hideous characters in Bouts’ painting. A similar, peaceful figure can be seen in Dosso Dossi’s (1486-1542) A Myth of Pan (1524). Unfortunately, the precise meaning remains a mystery and it is not clear whether the naked lady is slumbering or condemned to eternal rest.

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Venus Anadyomene – Titian, 1520

Typically, male nudes were based upon one of the most important Olympian deity, Apollo. The Renaissance artists had more choice for the female nude since all goddesses were beautiful, however, Venus, the Roman goddess of Love, was usually the most represented. The myth surrounding Venus’ birth is a popular subject for artists. In Pliny the Elder’s (AD 23-79) Natural History, written around AD 77, he describes a long lost painting by the Greek artist Apelles (BC 370-06), which depicts the birth of Venus. Born fully formed from the sea, the most famous version of this story can be seen in Sandro Botticelli’s (1445-1510) painting from the 1480s. The painting displayed in the Royal Academy’s exhibition, however, was the less elaborate Venus Anadyomene or Venus Rising from the Sea (1520) by the renowned Titian (1488-1576). In an attempt to rival Botticelli, Titian focuses on the nude Venus standing in the water in a natural, human-like pose. The youthful goddess is wringing her long golden hair and glancing over her shoulder rather than at the audience. Whilst Venus’ isolation makes her seem vulnerable and innocent, Titian wanted her nudity to add to the erotic allure of the painting.

Despite their unearthly beauty, the adventures of the Greek and Roman gods often resulted in adultery, lust, drunkenness, debauchery and deception, which encouraged Renaissance artists to explore impulsive behaviours that had been condemned by the Christian Church. Once, this would have had disastrous effects for the artist’s reputation, however, humanist ideas were beginning to infiltrate society with themes of seduction, powerful women and same-sex relationships.

The woodcut Aristotle and Phyllis (1513) by the German artist Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545) explored the growing interest in powerful women. Medieval texts claim the Greek philosopher Aristotle (BC 384-22) punished his pupil, Alexander the Great (BC 356-23) for spending too much time with his lover Phyllis. The philosopher blamed Phyllis’ presence for arousing unwanted sexual feelings. Rather than taking the blame for sexually tempting Aristotle, Phyllis sought revenge on the behalf of her lover and demanded to be walked around the garden upon Artistotle’s naked back, while Alexander stood witness to the humiliating scene.

Other artists dealt with themes of temptation, especially the erotic dreams of some men, which due to their religious upbringing, were considered to be impure thoughts. The Flemish artist Hans Memling (1440-94) took these vices and vanities further in his book panels for the Loiani family from Bologna. Memling depicted beauty as vanity and vices as something to be punished for after death, hence the illustration of the devil. The final panel, Memento Mori, reminds us that regardless of our pure or irreligious behaviour, death comes to us all.

As the Royal Academy proved midway through the exhibition, nudity in art was not necessarily either religious, mythological or erotic; there were many more purposes for the naked body. Previous to the Renaissance, paintings of the human body (usually clothed) were unrealistic, often with awry proportions or strangely shaped faces. The introduction of nudity to art allowed artists to start studying the human figure with live models in their studio. It was standard for artists to produce preparatory drawings before starting a painting, therefore, there are a large number of anatomical sketches by famous artists in the possession of art galleries today.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1483-1520) are life studies of the same model in different positions captured in red chalk. By studying the way the body moves in each position, Raphael was confident enough to paint the Three Graces in The Feast of the Roman Gods at the Farnesina in Rome. Likewise, Michelangelo (1475-1564) also produced sketches before putting brush to canvas, wall, etc. The Italian artist concentrated on the musculature of the human body and surrounding his sketches are annotations that may have had instructive purposes.

Cesare Cesariano (1475-1543) was one of a few artists who produced a detailed drawing of The Vitruvian Man. Based on the treatise of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (BC 80-15), which demonstrates the three central themes of architecture and engineering: firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty); The Vitruvian Man is an anatomically correct drawing of the proportions of the human body. The most famous of these drawings, of course, was by the famous polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).

Of course, the Royal Academy could not display sketches by Raphael and Michelangelo without showing the detailed drawings of the anatomy fanatic himself, Leonardo. During his busy career as an artist, sculptor, architect, inventor, scientist, mathematician, engineer, astronomist, geologist, botanist, writer, historian and cartographer, Leonardo somehow managed to find the time to dissect numerous bodies and make detailed drawings of human anatomy. The sketches displayed at the Royal Academy were those of the shoulder and neck. Unlike Raphael and Michelangelo, who were preparing for larger paintings, Leonardo was making preparations for his treatise about the human anatomy. Surrounding the illustrations of several views of the shoulders and neck are Leonardo’s tiny annotations. Known as mirror script, this can only be read when held up to a mirror and was probably an attempt by Leonardo to prevent others from stealing his ideas.

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Saint Jerome – Donatello, 1460s

Taking the naked body into consideration allowed artists to considered the vulnerabilities of the human condition. Prior to the Renaissance, artworks of the human figure were based on ideals rather than reality. Even in death, paintings of Christ looked pure and holy, if not regal. After being able to study human anatomy, however, artists learnt to portray suffering in a more realistic manner.

Donatello’s (1386-1466) polychromed wooden sculpture of the naked Saint Jerome (1460s) is a vivid example of the vulnerable human body. Scourging himself with a rock to quell carnal desire, Saint Jerome’s body is gaunt and aged, reflecting his long-term exposure to the elements in the desert. Unlike the paintings of Saint Sebastian seen at the beginning of the exhibition, in which his body remains unaffected by the torture imposed upon him, Saint Jerome is a stark visual reminder of the hardships of religious commitment and the evidence that the body can benefit from material needs.

The final section of the Royal Academy’s exhibition about The Renaissance Nude reveals that paintings involving nudes were readily accepted by society and even commissioned by notable patrons, for instance, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), Marchioness of Mantua. The Marchioness commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her distinguished studiolo, which she had designated for studying and contemplation. The themes of these paintings prove that secular subjects were welcome in a once predominantly strict religious country.

Dosso Dossi’s Allegory of Fortune depicts a semi-naked young man clasping a bunch of lottery tickets – apparently, Isabella d’Este’s personal emblem – which in this instance represent Chance. The nude woman opposite with her arms supporting a cornucopia represents Fortune. The latter is seated upon a bubble that could burst at any time, symbolising that fortune or luck can easily disappear. Why, however, did Isabelle D’Este request such a painting? Allegory of Fortune and similar paintings would have been a stark reminder to wealthy ruling families that they may not always be able to rely upon their good fortune.

Other paintings commissioned by Isabella d’Este had mythological connotations. Combat between Love and Chastity painted by Pietro Perugino (1445-1523) was produced from the instructions to paint an allegory representing the duelling forces of libido and restraint. The central female figures represent the Roman goddesses Venus (libido) and Diana (restraint). Diana, or Artemis as she was known in the Greek, was the goddess of chastity amongst other things. The clothed people in the painting represent her followers, whereas, those belonging to Venus are entirely naked. This suggests that nudity was associated with sexual impulses, much like it is today.

Telling people you are going to see an exhibition called The Renaissance Nude is met by mixed reactions: those who concentrate on the word “Renaissance” and those who focus in on “Nude”. The former are unfazed by the nudity aspect, believing that the Renaissance painters could not have painted anything sordid, whilst the latter question your morals and interests. Both, however, are wrong in their presumptions. Whilst Renaissance artwork cannot be considered pornography, they did tackle themes of debauchery, lust and eroticism.

If their aim was to explain how the nude became a common occurrence in Renaissance art, then the Royal Academy can congratulate themselves. Initially, nudes in the 15th and 16th centuries were produced for churches and private collections and it was only the erotic woodcut prints that circulated more widely. Ironically, the latter no longer exude sensuality and desire as they originally intended due to the changing of the times, morals and behaviours of recent generations.

Despite only focusing on artworks featuring nude figures, the exhibition taught visitors a lot about the Renaissance era. By combining artists from both north and south of the Alps, the differing attitudes towards the new ideas can clearly be seen. Whilst the Italians embraced the human body, its beauty and the opportunity for anatomical study, the northern European artists were more severe in their approach. The exhibition The Renaissance Nude included some of the most famous names from the Renaissance era as well as some of the greatest work from this period of momentous change. Most importantly, however, it shows the Renaissance nude to be far more diverse than previously imagined.

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.