Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from The Courtauld Gallery

By Jenni Davidson | 20 June 2012
An image of an orange and black drawing of a woman in profile
Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of Helena Fourment (circa 1630-31). Black and red chalk heightened with white, pen and ink
© The Courtauld Gallery, London
Exhibition: Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery, The Courtauld Gallery, London, until September 9 2012

Drawing has long been the foundation stone on which other art is built. The Courtauld Gallery has one of the most important collections of drawings in Britain, with 7,000 works ranging from the Renaissance to the 20th century.

Mantegna to Matisse: Masters Drawings from The Courtauld Gallery offers 60 of these works by some of the great masters, spanning more than 500 years.

A black and white drawing of a nude figure on a seat looking upwards at an angel
Michelangelo Buonarrotti, The Dream (Il Sogno) (circa 1533)© The Courtauld Gallery, London
The first collections of drawings are recorded in the 16th century, and the exhibition traces the changes in the role of drawings over the centuries, from predominate use for preliminary sketches and planned paintings or sculptures to finished artworks in their own right.

During the 18th century, art training was centred on academies of art that taught drawing from life and classical sculpture.

This is depicted well in Charles-Joseph Natoire’s Life Class at the Académie Royale, which features in the exhibition and shows Natoire himself in a red cloak instructing a class while students sketch models and statues.

The 19th century saw drawing becoming freer, allowing artists to express the world of the imagination, as well as the observed, and to innovate new modes of expression.

The drawings in the exhibition cover a range of subjects in a variety of styles and techniques, from line drawings to watercolours. Some are finished works, others preliminary sketches.

One of the earliest works is Da Vinci’s Studies for Saint Mary Magdalene, dating from around 1480-82.

It is just very rough sketches – more like doodles in a notebook than an actual artwork. But it is fascinating for that very reason; it makes you feel very close to the artist to see how he started off with the kind of drawing you or I might do.

Albrecht Dürer’s sketch of the Emperors Charlemagne and Sigismund, for a painting that now hangs in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, is more complete. But instead of drawing the banners where the heraldry should be, he has just jotted in the names of the states to be represented. Again, it is interesting to the see the process.

In contrast to these, Michelangelo’s The Dream (Il Sogno) is a beautifully detailed finished piece and one of the earliest drawings to be made as an independent work of art.

Bruegel’s Kermesse at Hoboken covers a lighter theme, revelling in the fun of a village fête with people and activity across the paper.

There are informal scenes, too, where the artists seem to have spontaneously captured a moment, rather like family photographers. Rembrandt’s drawing of his wife in bed holding their newborn baby is not a sketch for a later painting, but more like a modern snapshot.

Guercino’s red chalk study of a baby standing between its mother’s knees is touchingly intimate. The chalk is smudged around the child to convey the softness of the infant’s skin, while his hair and the mother’s dress are left as rough lines.

In contrast to these, Peter Paul Rubens’ unusually large drawing of his second wife lifting her veil, while still natural and intimate, is a fully worked portrait in a striking combination of red, white and black chalks and became one of the most famous drawings of the 17th century.

Landscapes are well-represented, with Canaletto’s View from Somerset Gardens Looking Towards London Bridge, showing the London skyline and boats on the Thames in the mid-18th century.

Turner’s Dawn after the Wreck is a bright watercolour of a beach at sunrise with a lone dog looking out sea, and Gainsborough imagines Landscape with Cattle on a Road Running Through a Wooded Valley.

There are some interesting pieces by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists too.
One of the highlights of the exhibition is Seurat’s drawing of a female nude, where she seems to emerge from a murky swirl of black crayon.

Because the exhibition doesn’t have an overarching theme, apart from demonstrating the variety of drawing and sketching across the centuries, there is nothing really to pull it together, so each work has to be enjoyed on individual terms, providing insights into each individual artist.

But the variety and contrast do give the viewer a sense of the array of draughtsmanship that underpins our greatest artworks.

  • Daily 10am-6pm. Admission £6/£4.50 (free Monday 10am-2pm, except public holidays).

More pictures:

An image of a dark red sketch drawing of the back of a nude male child
Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), Child Seen From Behind (circa 1625). Red chalk with stumping© The Courtauld Gallery, London
An image of a sketch of a busy town from bygone centuries
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Kermesse at Hoboken (1559). Pen and brown ink© The Courtauld Gallery, London
An image of a drawing of a nude figure shown from the back reclining
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Study for 'La Grande Odalisque' (1814). Graphite© The Courtauld Gallery, London
An image of a colourful drawing of a beach at sunset with a dog on the sand
JMW Turner, Dawn after the wreck (1841). Watercolour and gouache© The Courtauld Gallery, London
An image of a colourful drawing of apples, bottles and glasses on a table
Paul Cézanne, Apples, bottle and chairback (circa 1904-06). Graphite and watercolour© The Courtauld Gallery, London
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