Artists and the Classical Ideal
(Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, until 26 September 2015)
It’s 1531. A group of men have gathered in a low-ceilinged room in the Belvedere wing of the Vatican. All natural light has been banished. Clustered around a table, they are drawing from a classical statuette, lit only by candlelight to emphasise the curves and shadows of its graceful form. At the back, holding the statuette, is a bearded man in a cap. He is Baccio Bandinelli: sculptor, draughtsman and master of this little group of students. This engraving is the first depiction of artists drawing from classical models, and also the first depiction of a gathering which regarded itself as an art ‘academy’.
This exhibition at the Soane Museum looks at how, for four hundred years, young artists followed a rigorous curriculum in which the study of classical sculpture occupied a central place. It also makes a strong case for the enduring importance of the studio as a place of learning: an opportunity for artists to come together to study, correct and share. Bandinelli’s ‘academy’ was unofficial, a development of the gatherings that had taken place in Renaissance artists’ workshops such as those of Verrocchio and the Pollaiuolo brothers. But the concept would soon become official when, thirty years later, Vasari’s Accademia del Disegno was founded in Florence under the auspices of the Medici Grand Dukes. Where Florence went, others followed. And, for more than two hundred years, the artistic world would be dominated by academic training, focused on the close and constant study of antique sculpture, which formed a necessary step before the aspiring artist was allowed to study from the live model.
One of the most engaging aspects of the show is the chance to see artists ‘at work’. Some images are fanciful, such as the crowded studio envisaged by Stradanus in his drawing from the British Museum. Here a tumult of figures work concurrently on painting, sculpture, engraving and the study of an ecorché: it’d obviously be completely impractical in real life, but Stradanus wasn’t aiming for realism: he wanted to celebrate the variety and vigour of the visual arts. But other prints and drawings have a greater ring of truth about them. I was delighted to see a drawing from a series which has long been a favourite of mine from books: Federico Zuccaro’s drawing of his elder brother Taddeo as a boy, studying from the Laocoön in Rome (from the Getty Museum, Los Angeles). Federico was deeply committed to the academic system: he founded the Accademia di San Luca in Rome in 1595, and this series of drawings commemorating his brother’s talent (Taddeo died young) became a manifesto for the education of young artists. In this particular design, the young Taddeo sits hunched over his drawing board, surrounded by the great statues of antiquity, so fervently industrious that he’s forgotten about his flask (and perhaps bread?) on the ground beside him. Federico’s draughtsmanship is bold and fluid, and translucent sweeps of golden wash suggest bright Roman sunlight, set off with pools of cool shadow between the statues.
We also see how the Italian system was exported to northern Europe, through word of mouth and printed artists’ manuals, until the study of classical sculpture had become equally central to Dutch and Flemish artistic practice by the end of the 16th century. Some of the most brilliant northern studies of the antique were made by Hendrik Goltzius, for whom I have a particular weakness, so please indulge me a moment. He was one of those rare artists who is equally transcendent as both draughtsman and engraver: he invented a very characteristic style of cross-hatching to create volume and tone in his prints. Look closely and you’ll see a network of gently curving intersecting lines, interspersed with dots. When he engraved those lines into his copper plate, Goltzius would turn his burin as he worked so that the width of the line swells and declines along its length. The show displays two of his remarkable prints: one shows the Farnese Hercules, the monumental antique sculpture in which the muscled hero rests on his club, seen here from behind and rendered with all the power and elegance of Goltzius at his best. At the lower right, two beautifully detailed heads peer up, almost absurdly small: two young artists contemplating the sheer scale and bombast of the ancient world.
Nearby is one of Goltzius’s drawings: a red-chalk study of the Belvedere Torso (a sculpture which you might have been lucky enough to see in the recent Defining Beauty exhibition). From the early 16th century many artists were drawn to red chalk for its ability to suggest flesh tones, but few used it with the sophistication that Goltzius employs here. The grain of the chalk almost disappears, giving a fluid creamy tone that evokes the flush of living flesh, and the light plays over the topography of the musculature. Two hundred years later, the young J.M.W. Turner made a drawing of a cast of the same statue. His drawing is also in the exhibition and makes for an interesting comparison. No doubt personal taste comes into it somewhat, but for me Turner’s drawing is more pedantic and less vivid. Turner’s red chalk lingers significantly on the ridges and swells of muscle, becoming anatomical rather than naturalistic and, in contrast to Goltzius’s blush of life, Turner’s Torso looks like what it is: a plaster cast bathed in the warm glow of firelight. It’s hard to reproduce the contrast in small photographs here on the blog.
In the second room we move into the 18th century, when the academies were at their height and when any self-respecting young artist scrimped and saved to go to Rome, to study the antique at first hand. Stradanus’ busy workshop is superseded by the polite elegance of Charles-Joseph Natoire’s study of the French Royal Academy (from the Courtauld Institute), where decorous students draw from a pair of models posed as antique wrestlers, and Natoire himself – a professor at the Academy – graciously corrects students’ work in the left foreground, wreathed in a bright red cloak for extra prominence. The more solitary life of the student in Rome is captured in the nearby drawing by Hubert Robert (from the Katrin Bellinger Collection). A dishevelled young man – undoubtedly in a picturesque Roman garret – hesitates in his work, as if momentarily captivated by the portrait bust he’s copying, showing the empress Faustina the Younger. Robert is best known for his drawings and paintings of crumbling ruins populated with picturesque Italianate figures, and so this drawing is rather striking not only for its lovely condition, but also for its interior setting, the large scale of the figures, and the direct, gently humorous representation of the earnest young artist. It must be a self-portrait and, like Taddeo Zuccaro two hundred years earlier, Robert is shown to be transported by the beauty of antiquity.
One of the most striking objects in the second room is a mezzotint by William Pether (again from the BM). I spend a fair amount of my time looking at prints, but they’re mostly continental ones and I haven’t had the chance to study many good mezzotints so far. Pether’s print is on a large scale and shows an artist’s academy, copied from a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby. As you might know, Wright of Derby was a genius when it comes to lighting and Pether captures the wonderful contrasts of the picture, setting the soft candlelit highlights against the sublime velvety shadows of the background. I especially loved the attentive, appreciative glances of the boys at left, gazing up at the crouching Venus. The density and richness of the blacks are unbelievable and there’s superb detail in the lace of the boys’ collars and cuffs. It really is a little masterpiece.
If you can’t make it to the show, there is a catalogue, which is available here; but if you’re near London and haven’t yet been to the Soane, this would be your perfect excuse for a first trip. It’s a veritable labyrinth of sculpture, paintings, drawings and antiquities, and a visit feels rather like descending into an antique treasure-trove. It’s an ideal setting for the exhibition which, with its tight focus and well-balanced selection of prints and drawings, leaves you with a much deeper appreciation of artistic training from the Renaissance to the end of the 18th century – a kind of curriculum which has all but vanished in modern art schools.