Drawing Lessons

Portraits at the Morgan Library

by James F. Cooper

There are many reasons to create drawings: to sketch out ideas for more ambitious works, to improve the hand-eye coordination essential to an artist’s development, to explore the medium itself—graphite or pen on paper. Vincent van Gogh spent a year of intense experiments applying various drawing instruments to paper, including pouring milk over his graphite sketches, before achieving his breakthrough discovery with a common reed (which grew wild in the fields of Arles) to create the distinctive pen stroke which became the stylistic basis for his landscape paintings.

Drawing is the approach used by many artists to work out human physiognomy or the functions of the skeleton and muscles. The United States Military Academy at West Point required drawing as part of its curriculum because it enabled the thinking required for military maneuvers. In short, drawing enhances and develops the neurological process of thinking. Music similarly is recognized as a stimulant for math students. Many great artists, from Edgar Degas to Milton Glazer, wrote that drawing is the fundamental core of the visual arts education. This is still true, whether the goal is becoming a sculptor, painter, designer or film animator. Most of all, drawing becomes the fundamental approach and discovery to aesthetics. More about these findings will be discussed at the end of this essay.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres Portrait of Adolphe-Marcellin Defresne, 1825 THE MORGAN LIBRARY & MUSEUM, NEW YORK CITY

The Morgan Library & Museum, in New York City, recently presented “Life Lines: Portrait Drawings from Dürer to Picasso” (June 12–September 8, 2015). The exhibition offered lessons about the role the act of drawing plays in art-making and how we distinguish great art from merely good art. Among the forty-four portraits, spanning five centuries, were drawings by great draftsmen, curated from the museum’s own collection, one of the best gatherings of works on paper in the world. Great artists, however, do not always create masterpieces.

This was not a masterpiece exhibition, but it provided many opportunities to think about drawing as part of the creative process, to evaluate individual works and to consider the specific genre of portraiture. The grouping of the drawings into several categories—Self-Portraits, Family and Friends, Formal Portraits, and Portraits?—offered some guidance.

Among the formal portraits were two works by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), one of the finest draftsmen of the nineteenth century. His graphite portraits of visitors to the French Academy in Rome, where he was the director, are much admired by historians and critics. Ingres’s Portrait of Adolphe-Macellin Defrensne (1825) was done after his return to Paris. The exquisite quality of his pencil line in denoting the features of the models; the restraint these works imply, what the artist purposely leaves out, the empty spaces that invite the tint of the paper to fill in between the delicate lines delineating the figure, the exquisite linearity and the rejection of heavy detail are on display in this fine drawing.

Originally trained as a history painter, Ingres remains best known for his portraits. History painting, so esteemed by the Academy, was rarely Ingres’s forte. However, early works such as The Envoys of Agamemnon (1801) were misunderstood, in part because of the work’s militant Neoclassicism. His fellow Academicians rejected the heavy Carolingian iconography employed by Ingres for Napoleon on His Imperial Throne (1806), which literally drove the artist from France (to Rome). Even his mentor, Jacques-Louis David, turned against him. Upon his return to France after Napoleon’s defeat, Ingres painted remarkable portraits. Like his drawings, his painted portraits—such as Comtesse d’Haussonville (1845, Frick Collection)—are exquisite. The warmth and directness of his graphite portrait of his wife, Madeleine (1830), at the Morgan, is a sensory delight.

Gaetano Gandolfi Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter c. 1776 THE MORGAN LIBRARY & MUSEUM, NEW YORK CITY

What are we to make of the red-and-black chalk Portrait of Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1632) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini? Many, including several of my sculptor friends, rank Bernini higher than Michelangelo. His remarkable marble bust of the Cardinal was the outstanding attraction at the exhibition “Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture” (2008) at the Getty Museum. Bernini’s transformation of marble into flesh, lace and hair is incomparable. His compositional solution for a simple marble bust is brilliant, notably in the unique formal shape he created for the cardinal’s three-pointed hat. Yet Bernini’s chalk study for the marble portrait, displayed at the Morgan, is no more than a rough note. The linear quality throughout the sketch remains unchanged. The drawing certainly resembles the Borghese of the finished marble bust, but as an autonomous work of art, it is uninteresting. There is no joy or personal involvement by the artist.

In contrast, Michelangelo’s drawings are richer. His lines bite into the paper like a steel burin into a copper engraving plate. Other lines of Michelangelo’s figures are inscribed as if brushed onto the paper with a feather. When you look closely at a figure study by Michelangelo, it resembles a bas-relief carved into the surface of the paper. In short, the preparatory sketch becomes a finished work of art, sometimes superior in quality to the figurative painting or sculpture. Why then are we presented with a placid portrait sketch by a master like Bernini? Perhaps because it demonstrates how the sculptor worked? But it is not a great work of art. Bernini’s marble bust, however, certainly is.

Most of the great Renaissance figurative studies—how the body twists in contrapposto, how an arm grapples with a sword or shield, how a head turns as a figure looks over his shoulder—are not portraits. The artist is not primarily interested in mimesis or capturing an individual’s physiognomy.

Many drawings grouped under the rubric “Friends and Family” are the product of intimacy. Artists exploring human features turn to themselves, as in Henri Matisse’s Self-Portrait (1945), which demonstrates the wiry vivacity of his line, or to domestic familiars. Gaetano Gandolfi’s red-and-black chalk Portraitof the Artist’s Daughter (c. 1776) is both affectionate and skillful. In Rembrandt’s Two Studies of Saskia Asleep (c. 1635–37), the artist made two sketches of his sleeping wife with a few quick and confident pen strokes. The second version shows Saskia sunk deeply into her pillow with her mouth slightly open. Only the heads of both versions are slightly rendered, while the entire prostrate forms under the sheets are delineated with only a few lines, which divide the empty spaces between them into formal abstract white fields, although the two “Saskias” appear to be lying side-by-side in the same bed.

Artists such as Leonardo, Michelangelo and Rembrandt often used the same sheet of paper to bunch together several sketches of different angles drawn from the same model, to show an arm in several different positions or raise and lower the head. Sometimes the artist would turn the paper upside down and continue to draw. Remarkably, these seemingly disconnected parts of one model or several are bound together compositionally, visually and aesthetically.

Albrecht Dürer’s charcoal Portrait of the Artist’s Brother Endres (c. 1518) suggests the compromises portrait-artists may make. Dürer, one of the greatest artists of the Northern European Renaissance, had traveled to Italy to improve his apprehension of aesthetic beauty. Why was this drawing selected for this exhibition? In contrast to Dürer’s remarkable engravings, woodcuts and paintings, which were widely known throughout Europe while he was still in his twenties, for their beauty, craft and knowledge of proportion, architecture and mathematics, this drawing is not outstanding. More justly celebrated are his engravings Knight, Death and the Devil (1513) and Saint Jerome in his Study (1514), and the remarkably precocious drawing by Dürer, age thirteen, a silverpoint Self-Portrait (1484).

Albrecht Dürer Portrait of the Artist’s Brother Endres, c. 1518 THE MORGAN LIBRARY & MUSEUM, NEW YORK CITY

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–82) was a fine draftsman and painter, but the quality of his portrait sketches is compromised by a desire to capture the likeness of his model, frequently Jane Morris. We know her image, with her mass of coal-black hair, because the artist used her so many times as a model. She was his muse, and he took pains to capture the features of her beautiful face. But his obsession constricted the artistic freedom expressed by other artists in their studies. Missing from the Portrait of Jane Morris (1860) are the intuitive digressions and spatial omissions a gifted artist plays with as he sketches, as his eye follows the linear sweep of his drawing instrument, pressing hard at one point, broadening the line at another, trailing off into the whiteness of the paper, still conscious how close it comes to the margin or another part of the figure. The linear quality and tonality of Jane Morris hardly varies a whit. The composition takes little notice of the visual awkwardness created where her hair nudges the margin of the paper. In short, within its own parameters, framed by the four sides of the paper he draws upon, the artist has ignored the aesthetic relationship that should exist between the contour of a drawing and the edges of the paper. Instead, Rossetti’s thoughts are focused squarely upon the model’s appearance. Although Rossetti was not an academic realist, but a precursor of early modernity, he makes the same mistake many nineteenth-century academic realists did. Realism, for them, was more important than aesthetic beauty. His approach to painting often follows the same logic as his drawings, although his highly decorative style suggests that he was moving toward modernism, in style if not substance.

 Most disappointing in the exhibition was Egon Schiele’s Portrait of the Artist’s Sister Gerti (1909). The Austrian artist, who died during the Great War in 1918 at the age of twenty-seven from pneumonia, left an amazing number of excoriating, linear graphite and ink drawings of women in various stages of undress. This early drawing, executed when the artist was only nineteen, clearly shows the influence of Gustav Klimt, the finest and most creative painter of the Austrian Secession. Klimt’s exquisite Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907) now hangs in the Neue Galerie in New York City. Klimt’s masterpiece was stolen by the Nazis during World War II. Recovered by the daughter of its deceased owner in a tumultuous trial in New York fifty years later, it was subsequently acquired by Ronald S. Lauder for $104.2 million. Schiele’s drawing of Gerti, conceived in formal, block-like flat abstract shapes, reflects the influence of Klimt’s powerful style, but shows no evidence of the tortured linear qualities that Schiele is best known for. This drawing serves only as a preparatory study for the finished painting Portrait of Gerti Schiele (1909), now at the Museum of Modern Art.

Some drawings defy conventional notions relating to portraiture. Though resembling portraits in one way or another, they raise the question of what actually constitutes a portrait. The sitter posing for one of Joseph Wright of Derby’s compositions, for example, is identified only in the inscription. Portrait of John Stavely (c. 1775) is a preparatory study for an illustration to Laurence Sterne’s novel A Sentimental Journey (1768). Lorenzo Tiepolo’s Head of a Youth (c. 1760) includes an unusual motif: a youth’s head depicted at close range, with a hand obscuring most of the face. This motif can also be found in other drawings from the same period, which suggests that it may have been a pose used for teaching drawing. Tiepolo uses two different colors of chalk, black and red, in this drawing. These works are part of the “Portraits?” section of the exhibition, highlighting how slippery such terms can be. Another drawing here could be an allegory: Hendrik Goltzius’s Young Man Holding a Skull and a Tulip (1614), which is inscribed “Quis evadet. Nemo.” Who escapes? No one.

I have made some harsh criticisms about the quality or lack of same in these master drawings. But I also believe this exhibition provides an invaluable lesson about the purpose of art and the nature of arts standards, particularly in education. Aristotle and Plato spoke of the immutable timeless standards of great art, which sets the bar of excellence for civilizations past and present. Aristotle wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics of the role of the arts in “making the citizens to be good and capable of noble acts.” Excellence is the aim of art, he stated. Not coincidently, the first draft of the charter for the National Endowment for the Arts, drafted under the leadership of President John F. Kennedy, stated its sole purpose was to seek out artists who exemplify excellence in their work. Aristotle concluded at one point in his treatise that, in times of national travail, we should look to the great works of the past, to draw upon for strength and inspiration.

Having served three years in Washington on the Committee for National Standards for Arts Education, I participated in the struggle of a minority to convince the majority of its members that excellence was a major goal in arts education. The National Committee—co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Board of Education, the Labor Department, Congress and the President of the United States—chose to ignore the standard of sequential acquisition of knowledge, aesthetics and craft for grades K through 12.

In the final publication, summarizing national standards for the visual arts, the word drawing did not appear in the core standards for arts education. The 150-page government publication focused almost entirely upon social issues. However important these issues—such as race, war, crime, community, friendship and family—may be, they do not teach art, nor do they teach aesthetics. They do not teach anatomy or drawing from nature. If we used social criteria, or political correctness, to teach mathematics or English, we would have a nation of illiterates. A pallid form of this method of social indoctrination was applied to National Standards for History. Although this publication was overruled by the Secretary of Education, it was immediately restored once she left office. Frankly, who cares what some child (or adult, for that matter) creates on paper, or canvas, or marble and stone, or computer, if the quality is well below excellence? No one is convinced by a lousy painting or motion picture, no matter how important the subject.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait of Jane Morris, 1860 THE MORGAN LIBRARY & MUSEUM, NEW YORK CITY

How does one achieve quality in art? The answer is, by a sequential acquisition and development of knowledge and skills. If drawing, or any other primary skill, is ignored, even censored by the educational establishment, what criteria is there to judge quality in a work? Unfortunately, the committee debate, which lasted several months, was supported not only by the majority of committee members, which included members of Congress, CEOs of large corporations, deans of universities and educators, but also by a large majority of well-meaning parents and teachers organizations.

The Morgan is full of beautiful works of art. But it is also instructive to view the preliminary or preparatory works, what these geniuses created in the process of producing finished masterpieces. One book I highly recommend is Milton Glazer’s Art is Work. America’s greatest living graphic designer and illustrator shows how he develops his projects—from designing a restaurant, to creating beautiful theater posters and illustrating Shakespeare’s plays. There is a cultural revolution boiling beneath today’s moribund, boring culture, in the arts, poetry, architecture, music, sculpture, education, cinema and criticism. In the visual arts, drawing is only the first step. Aesthetic beauty is the second. What emerges from this renaissance is only a guess. But it is exciting. I believe it will change the nation.

The Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, New York, New York, 10016. Telephone (212) 685-0008. TheMorgan.org


American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2015, Volume 35, Number 4