Workshop of Maso Finiguerra, A youth drawing; whole-length, resting a tablet on his raised right knee Pen and brown ink, with brown wash. © The Trustees of the British Museum, 1895,0915.440.
The first people to study drawings were artists, who had a professional understanding of the draftsman’s materials and the decisions that lay behind their use. When they considered the drawings of other artists, they were interested primarily in the character of a fellow artist’s work (or, conversely, the attribution of the drawing, if there was doubt) and in the quality of the sheet. Giorgio Vasari, the architect, painter, historian and theoretician of art, and the first systematic collector of drawings, shared both of these interests.
Soon the passion for drawings spread to gentlemen of means who were not artists. They were called virtuosi, or amateurs. Their primary interest was in amassing collections of the best drawings they could find, and they too focussed on quality and attribution, but as passive enthusiasts, who may or may not have had some experience with chalk, brush, or pen. However, they were served by expert advisors and dealers, who were often artists.
In the nineteenth century public museums proliferated and with them curators, professional scholars who were not necessarily trained in drawing. The study of the history of art began to find a place in universities by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Likewise the professors of the new discipline were rarely artists.
Drawing, as it was practiced before 1800, is no longer a universal part of artists’ training, and the complex process of developing works of art through drawings has fallen largely into disuse. The materials used for most drawings before 1800 have virtually disappeared.
Today we rely on experts trained in art history, science, and, to a lesser extent, art to tell us who made a particular drawing, for what purpose, and how. Our curiosity about quality and attribution is as keen as ever, but few of these experts have practical experience with the materials. We must study these materials and techniques as we would learn a dead language.
The lengths to which we must go to gain an intellectual grasp of this basically simple art would seem contrived and perhaps absurd to Vasari, but from our vantage point we need to make this effort. While the study of materials and techniques is obviously vital to a conservator who is about to begin a treatment, it also brings the scholar, the collector, and the museum visitor into direct contact with the creative work of artists of the past.
Page from “Libro de’ Disegni”, Sheets probably 1480-1504; mounting & framework by Vasari after 1524. album page with ten drawings on recto and verso in various media with decoration in pen and brown i
Page from “Libro de’ Disegni”, Sheets probably 1480-1504; mounting & framework by Vasari after 1524. album page with ten drawings on recto and verso in various media with decoration in pen and brown ink, brown and gray wash, on light buff paper overall: 56.7 x 45.7 cm (22 5/16 x 18 in.) Woodner Collection, Patrons’ Permanent Fund 1991.190.1
Collectors have sought after drawings for more than four hundred years with no regard for the humble materials of which they are made. Enthusiasts, whether of modest means or extreme wealth, have often pressed their resources to the utmost limit and beyond, to acquire drawings which they treasure for their direct embodiment of the artist’s creative energy and pure reflection of his imagination.
Drawings as we know them today emerged in the Renaissance. As artists turned to direct observation of the natural world as a source for their work, it became necessary for them to prepare their images in drawings, which could be modified, erased, and discarded with relative ease and lack of expense. These drawings were artefacts of the creative process. They were never intended to be collected or displayed.
Contemporaries, mostly artists themselves, already recognized the extraordinary achievement of these draughtsmen and made efforts to preserve their preparatory drawings, which were often more beautiful than their finished work.
Giorgio Vasari, the painter and architect of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici’s court in sixteenth century Florence, was the first systematic collector of drawings. As a practicing artist, he understood the function of drawings in the creative process. In fact, the theory behind his lives and his basic belief in the excellence of the art of his own time and nation is founded on the primacy of drawing.
Vasari mounted his collection of drawings on album sheets with magnificent architectural frames. When, after his death, his collection was sold, the albums and even the sheets were broken up, and his drawings were scattered among collectors all over Europe, above all in France, England, and Austria.
In these early times drawings were kept in portfolios and enjoyed intimately, in keeping with the spirit of their creation. While finished drawings for presentation to friends, colleagues, and patrons emerged in the sixteenth century, a market for them developed only in the eighteenth, well after the tradition of collecting working drawings had reached maturity. These landscapes and portraits on paper, vellum, or leather were often developed to a high finish with monochrome washes, or with watercolor, bodycolor, or gouache.
Dealers and collectors then commonly framed them and hung them on the wall like small paintings, a custom which completed the transformation of drawings into formal art objects.
Venetian School, 1520-1550, Madonna and Child, black chalk, pen and brown ink on blue paper, retouched in gouache and oil.
Isidoro Bianchi (Campione d’Italia, 1581 – 1662)
Design for a Ceiling Decoration
Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash heightened with white on tan paper, 298 x 298mm., 11 3/4 x 11 3/4 in.
Heinrich Schwemminger (Vienna 1803-1884)
Ferdinand Schubert Posing as David Giving Thanks for his Victory over Goliath
Graphite, conté crayon, and red chalk, heightened with white chalk on tan wove paper
231 x 326 mm, 12 7/8 x 9 1/8 in.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Beyond Old Masters
American (Rhode Island), 19th Century, Calligraphic Drawing Celebrating a Marriage, pen and brown ink on cream-colored card, 9 3/4″ x 12″ (248 x 305 mm), dated 1854: “Hope, Love, and Faith; Lavinia and Wesley; AFFECTION; Presented to Mr. and Mrs. Hill by A. S.” with roundels containing the Lord’s Prayer in Latin and in English.
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The late art critic Philip Isaacson in the catalogue to the exhibition Records of Passage: New England Manuscripts in the Fraktur Tradition, rightly raises the question of just what one should call works like the present one. On the analogy of function he considers these works to be in the Fraktur tradition, although the style typically belongs to the English manner practiced in New England, and not to the German tradition of Pennsylvania. The present object is a family record, bringing together letter-forms, decorative motifs, as well as represented and symbolic forms. The strongest element in this particular design is decorative, combining verbal and visual expressions into a complex but unified symbolic whole, in which the human and the cruciform is combined. In this way, it goes beyond the scope of a merely ornamented family record and provides a warm, personal tribute to the married couple, to marriage, and to Christian belief and values. In keeping with its importance, the card support on which it was drawn and written suggests that it was intended for display in a frame, rather than pasted as a sheet into a family album.
The work was presented to Lavinia Bayley (1830-1912), a native of Rhode Island, and Wesley Wilson Hill (1828-1867) on the occasion of their marriage in 1854 by “A. S.” who presumably commissioned it. (The Hills are recorded in East Greenwich, Rhode Island since the early eighteenth century, and it appears that Wesley was born there.). They had one daughter, Lydia Lavinia Hill, born in 1856. After Wesley’s death Lavinia lived with Lydia and her husband, Joseph Gough, in Providence until her own demise. The couple were reunited in their grave in Mineral Spring Cemetery in Pawtucket.
The ornate design, as far from the representational as it is, betrays no religious scruples towards the graven image or ornament—a strong belief among the early Baptist and Quaker settlers of East Greenwich. This and the groom’s Christian name, Wesley, suggest a Methodist origin. The Methodist church of East Greenwich was first built in 1831, and the vigorous growth of the congregation called for an enlargement of the building in 1850. The principal private school of East Greenwich and the surrounding Kent County, Kent Academy (later renamed East Greenwich Academy) was taken over by the Providence Conference of the Episcopal Methodist Church in 1841, making East Greenwich something of a Methodist stronghold.
In this image, an abstract humanoid shape is fused with an ornate cross, the beams of which intersect at a central region suggesting the heart, occupied by the word “LOVE.” The Theological Virtues, first mentioned by St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, 13:13 (“And now abideth faith, hope, and love, even these three: but the chiefest of these is love.” —Geneva Bible, 1560). In the drawing HOPE dwells in the head-like form, FAITH in the solar plexus, with LOVE at the heart and the center of the cross. The figure is balanced atop an arch, formed by the word AFFECTION in fanciful letters, which rests on spheres, resting in turn on pedestals decorated by coats of arms. In human anatomical terms this suggests legs and feet. Below the horizontal beam of the cross two hearts, linked by a circular chain that pierces them, appear in ornate fields, Wesley’s filled with solid reserved crosses, and Lavinia’s by delicate, wildflower-like cruciform lines. The word “AND” appears just below the chain, linked to the word “FAITH” by a winged face, resembling the image of the human spirit shown on colonial gravestones. Above the beam, the Lord’s Prayer is written out in a minute hand within two dime-sized circles, in Latin on the left and in English on the right. (The writing of the Lord’s Prayer in different languages, above all Latin, was a topos of nineteenth century calligraphy. Presumably the calligraphers wanted to impress actual and potential customers and pupils with their knowledge of foreign tongues, as well as their ability to write in an extremely small hand. The Hungarian polymath and confidence man, Gabor Naphegyi, carried this to an extreme in his Lord’s Prayer in Fifty-four Languages.) A profusion of branches and leaves grows out of the form, conveying the fruitfulness of the marriage, both in progeny and in the propagation of the Christian values expressed within it.
The design as a whole embodies a horror vacui, with ornamental patterns filling every space. If the spaces themselves are symmetrical in form, the ornamental designs within them are not, creating a pervading instability and liveliness in the image, which brings vigor to the the solid, symmetrical overall design. The letter-forms of the principal concepts imitate print, like those of many similar designs of the time. The lettering of “AFFECTION” is purely fanciful, while the dedication below is written in a partly gothicized Spencerian cursive.
The basic elements of the design are familiar from similar efforts of the period, not least Naphegyi’s, with the symmetrically organized fields, filled with commonplaces or pious truths written with print-like or fanciful letters, and a central dedication section written in cursive. For similar use of circular fields, one might compare the well-known sheet by Araunah Judd, who lived in Coventry, Connecticut, only a day’s travel west of East Greenwich and Providence. The execution of the present drawing is, however, quite different, and the coherence and ambition of its meaning and intent set it apart from the main body of nineteenth-century American calligraphic work. It is an exceptionally important example of the powerful ways visual and verbal symbolism worked on the American mind of the mid-century.
1. Philip Isaacson, “Records of Passage: New England Illuminated Manuscripts in the Fraktur Tradition,” Clarion, Winter 1981, pp. 30ff., exh. cat. American Folk Art Museum, RISD.
2. From public records accessed through Ancestry.com and findagrave.com.
3. D. H. Greene, History of the Town of East Greenwich and Adjacent Territory from 1677 to 1877, Providence, 1877, pp. 149f.; Historic Images of East Greenwich, East Greenwich Free Library: http://www.eastgreenwichlibrary.org/about/historic-images-east-greenwich
4. Greene, op. cit., pp. 202ff., 218ff.
5. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, online catalogue, Gabor Naphegyi, Calligraphic Picture, 1852: http://emuseum.history.org/view/objects/asitem/People@6788/0?t:state:flow=9cb529a7-12f8-4e49-a334-cc0fc97c288a
6. Isaacson, loc. cit., Fig. 1
Anonymous, A Pair of Objets Trouvés: industrial drawings, mounted (pen, ink, and yellow wash on drafting paper), printed flour sacks, and stained wood, 29 7/8 x 24 7/8 in., 633 x 754 mm.
1. (horizontal) inscribed lower left: No. 7 Fulling Mill, built by Jas. Hunter Mach. Co. May 12/03 – N. Adams Mass. 1 1/2 = 1 foot; in circle: 6/79
2. (vertical) inscribed lower left: Elevation and section of No. 7 Fulling Mill, built by Jas. Hunter Mach. Co. May 12, 1903 – N. Adams Mass. 1 1/2 = 1 foot; in circle: A/80
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Important Past Sales
Drawings in the Berkshire Review and New York Arts
The online arts magazines, The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts and New York Arts regularly publish previews and reviews of sales and exhibitions of old master and modern drawings. You can access all of these directly through Old Master Drawings.
Giuseppe Cesari, called Il Cavaliere d’Arpino (Italian, 1568–1640). Head of a Satyr. Black and red chalk on paper. 7 1/2 x 6 in., 1596. Collection of Robert Loper
Claude Lorrain. Landscape with a Rider and an Idealized View of Tivoli, 1642. Pen and brown ink with dark brown wash on white paper. 7¾ x 10 in. The British Museum, London.
Sebastiano del Piombo (c.. 1485 – 1547). Recto: Study of a Woman’s Head. Charcoal heightened with white chalk on blue laid paper. H. 0,232 ; L. 0,177 m. Musée du Mont-de-Piété de Bergues.