Drawings — from artist’s tool to collector’s treasure
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.