On Sunday, Curator and Head of the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Morgan Library and Museum John Marciari came to the Manton Research Center to present “From Natural to Artificial and Back Again,” a lecture in conjunction with a current exhibition at the Clark, Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection. Marciari’s lecture chronicled the development of drawings by European artists during the Renaissance and Baroque eras.
Advancements in science during the Renaissance transformed the relationship between artists and the natural world. Simultaneously, the changing role of the artist from craftsman to a sort of elevated intellectual figure, as well as the emergence of a connoisseur and collector culture, transformed the circulation of artworks and led to a greater degree of self-awareness in the works of many artists.
Focusing on the drawings in the extensive Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Collection, which features artists such as Pisanello, Andrea Mantegna, Fra Bartolomeo, Albrecht Altdorfer, Claude Lorrain, Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt, Marciari’s lecture followed the shift from model-book to sketch-book drawing in the Early Renaissance, to the more self-consciously artificial works and the rise of Mannerism in the 16th century, and then a return to naturalism in the 17th century.
The majority of drawings surviving from the beginning of the 15th century are sheets from model-books or pattern-books made of parchment. These books functioned as references and had a pedagogical function in teaching young artists how to draw. Apprentices copied the model-books of their masters and would go on to make model-books of their own. Art based on art, rather than art based on nature, resulted in representations that grew farther and farther away from naturalistic representation.
A fundamental shift during the Renaissance was the rise of the working drawing, or the sketch: the idea, coinciding with changes in theory in the 16th century, that an artist could think out loud on a page. In De Pictura, Alberti emphasized the artist’s need to go back to nature. Similarly, drawing exercises – made for the sake of practice – emerged, in which artist drew from models. This change occurred all throughout Europe. In the back of Jan Bruegel’s sketch of Rome is an unassuming silhouette of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, completed only a few months before Bruegel left Italy. In spite of the monumental construction, Bruegel’s sketch concentrates on the interplay between the muddy banks and shore of the Tiber River, relegating the dome itself to the periphery.
The rise of the sketch also resulted in a proliferation of different kinds of drawing media. Instead of the traditional pen and ink medium, there emerged different colorings, watercolor, red and black chalks, etc. – each one serving a different function. Red and black chalk grew in popularity, for example, when artists became interested in volume and light rather than just the shape and contours of the object, a development contemporary with Leonardo da Vinci’s studies.
The goal of naturalism, however, was not mimesis. Instead, it was to understand the natural world with such a degree of mastery that one could construct the world from memory. Mantegna’s Three Standing Saints depicts three figures that appear to be drawn from the same model. Marciari argued, however, that, in spite of the same model, the schematic face and differences in drapery indicate that Three Standing Saints was actually drawn from memory. Recombining elements from past sketches, Three Standing Saints was an invention of sorts rather than a work of reproduction.
Another interesting trend was the importation of figures from drawing exercises into the margins of paintings. Marciari explained this to be a term called “orthopraxis,” or “correct practice.” The purpose of this was to indicate to art critics that the artist had drawn from real life. The act of sketching was thus understood as an act of invention so that drawings could be preserved and collected for years to come.
It seems that day has come. In bringing to light the influences of scientific development on 16th and 17th century art and the various ways that this impact manifested itself, Marciari’s lecture gave the audience a new appreciation for these centuries-old drawings. And, fortuitously, over 100 of these drawings are currently on display in Drawn to Greatness, which will remain open until April 22 for all who wish to experience the exhibit for themselves.