Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt

Article excerpt

Some art can be made in solitude, straight out of the artist's head. But portraiture is a game for two. That's the lesson of The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt, a marvellous little exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It is essentially a medley of Old Master works on papers from various British collections -- which might sound a little on the quiet side. But that would be the wrong conclusion: on the contrary it poses intriguing questions and is full of visual pleasures.

Notable in the latter category is a long row of Holbein's studies of the early Tudor court and a striking array of works by Annibale Carracci and his school. But there is much else to pore over: these are often intimate works, which take you physically close to the marks of the artist's hand. It's worth peering to take in a tender little study by Filippino Lippi of a fellow artist, the sculptor Mino da Fiesole (c. 1480-3), or to examine a tiny Parmigianino profile of a little boy (c. 1535). But The Encounter also makes a serious point: any portrait is the record of a meeting between two people -- which is why it is a complicated business.

For one thing, a portrait may be affected not only by what the artist knows about art, but also by how well he or she knows the subject. One of the most touching in the show is Carlo Dolci's red and black chalk study of his shoemaker (c. 1630). This tiny, careworn man with enormous ears is half smiling, as if chatting with the painter -- as he probably was. Here is the record of a person, a moment and also a friendship.

A portrait documents a certain amount of time, and a drawing can do so faster than a painting, pinning down an instant. Thus, in about 1636 on the margin of a sheet of studies, Rembrandt jotted down the way his wife Saskia inclined her head, the way their baby nestled in her arms. There's a huge amount of information in a few lines, probably taking much less than a minute to draw.

Annibale Carracci's study of his friend Giulio Pedrizzano (c. 1593-4), a lute player, could not have taken much longer. His pen was shooting over the paper, the sitter's moustache, nostrils and eyes not much more than blots of ink. But the man's proud, pensive, slightly quizzical presence is there.

It's not hard to grasp what the artist brings to the process of portraiture: skill, observation, empathy. But how about the sitter? Well, without the subject, obviously there is nothing to investigate. Painters can depict people without models, but the results feel different -- and often more repetitive. An invented face is very different from one that has been carefully contemplated. …

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