Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery

Michelangelo: Il Sogno

(Courtauld Gallery, London, until 9 September 2012)

Over the last few years the Courtauld has become renowned for small-scale exhibitions, which often use works from its enviable collection as springboards to explore particular themes.  Recent personal favourites include Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence, which focused on 15th-century cassone paintings, and the wonderful Michelangelo’s Dream, which used Il Sogno as the basis of a discussion of Michelangelo’s presentation drawings made for friends.  Both shows included loans from other collections alongside items from the Courtauld’s holdings, but the new exhibition is dedicated to the Courtauld’s own drawings (as was the recent show Spanish Drawings at the Courtauld Gallery).

The Courtauld is now better known than it was – it perhaps isn’t fair to describe it as a ‘hidden gem’ – but seeing an exhibition like this reminds you exactly how impressive their collection is.  Michelangelo’s Il Sogno makes a welcome return to the wall and, among the other drawings, there are works by Leonardo, Durer, Guercino, Rembrandt, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Turner and Canaletto, to name just a few.  London has had a spate of drawings exhibitions in the last three or four years, so a few of the Courtauld sheets were old friends.  It was great to see those again, but of course the drawings that really struck me were those with which I’m not so familiar.

Rubens’s Portrait of Helena Fourment (1630-31) is almost life-size and its presents the artist’s second wife in all her glowing robustness, the flesh tones achieved by skilful blending of the chalks.  She wears an extraordinary headdress, designed to be draped in a veil; folds of the veil lie over Helena’s shoulder, where her fingers brush against its edge. Another unexpectedly imposing sheet was the Seurat Female Nude (circa 1880), which arrested me from the far side of the room, the woman’s pale, sculptural body emerging from a densely-worked fog of conté crayon.

Seurat: A female nude

Georges Seurat, A female nude, Courtauld (detail)

And a special mention has to go to the Study of a Seated Boy by Pontormo, which is executed in broad, expansively confident strokes of black chalk.  A number of similar drawings, by various artists from the 15th and 16th centuries, survive in other collections, showing artists’ garzoni in apparently unguarded moments (Pontormo’s boy may be posing, but he could equally be lost in a daydream).  I always enjoy them: the V&A have a splendid Parmigianino showing a studio assistant grinding pigments, apparently oblivious to his master sketching him.

Among the French drawings, a Fragonard caught my eye which shows a young girl seated, staring into the distance.  Executed in characteristically energetic red chalk, she has a bit more individuality than Fragonard’s usual subjects: there is a theory that she may be his daughter Rosalie, who tragically died three years after the date of this drawing.  These are just a few of the things which I admired; to list them all would be to turn this post into just that: a list. Although reviews so far have been overwhelmingly positive, it has been suggested that the exhibition fails to provide an overall rationale for the choice of drawings (beyond the fact they are the Print Room’s greatest hits).  Brian Sewell argues that many of the works would have benefited from being shown alongside related drawings but, while this is true, I feel it would have defeated the object of the exhibition, which is to focus on the Courtauld’s own collection.  He also argues more broadly about the decline of interest in master drawings and the limited opportunities to see them now.

While this may be true in comparison to the 1960s, I don’t think my generation needs to feel too hard done by.  Just in the last few years we’ve had a series of really great drawings exhibitions in London, such as Watteau at the Royal Academy; Michelangelo and the stunning Italian Renaissance Drawings show at the British Museum; drawings from the Art Gallery of Ontario at Dulwich; and the Courtauld’s own Guercino show, which was largely responsible for getting me hooked on drawings. Internationally there are increasing numbers of exhibitions and catalogues which give us large-scale, full-colour reproductions of drawings in a whole range of museum collections.

Pontormo: Study of a boy

Jacopo Pontormo, Study of a boy, Courtauld (detail)

Perhaps it is more difficult nowadays for the general public to handle drawings and to learn about them that way, but museums are making every effort to open up their Print Rooms.  You only need to send an email or pick up a phone to make an appointment, and you can visit the drawings collections at the British Museum, the Ashmolean, the Fitzwilliam and even the Royal Collection at Windsor.

It is true that for drawings scholars, who’ve been visiting exhibitions for years, there probably aren’t many surprises in the Courtauld show – but these exhibitions are designed to appeal to everyone, and many members of the public won’t be familiar with any of the works on show.  If one or two people every day are inspired by these highlights to learn more about the world of master drawings (of any period), then I think the Courtauld exhibition will have done a great job.  And for those of us who have seen some of the drawings quite recently, it’s still a pleasure to see them again.   I would argue that there are a number of legitimate reasons to mount an exhibition, and I believe it’s perfectly justifiable to want to present a selection of beautiful things.  When I walked around the exhibition I simply savoured the opportunity to see some wonderful drawings that I hadn’t had the chance to see in person before.  There was no overriding theme or thread or argument, but I don’t think there had to be.  Once in a while, I think we can allow ourselves just to appreciate a collection of things which are each excellent in their own way, for the sake of their excellence.

In any case, for those who are keen to find out more about the context and to see comparable works, there is a very impressive catalogue, which has lavish full-page illustrations and thorough entries on each drawing.

Buy the catalogue

Rubens: Portrait of Helena Fourment

Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of Helena Fourment, Courtauld (detail)

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