Master Drawings from Ontario at Dulwich

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Master Drawings from Ontario at Dulwich


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


AS a relatively youthful collection of pictures, the Ontario Gallery of Art shrewdly decided in 1969 to specialise in drawings and prints. That was what the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, once youthful too (in 1793), had chosen to do in Vienna, besieged by the acres of painted canvas acquired there during the Habsburg Empire. The Albertina is now the foremost museum of graphic art in Europe. In spite of occasionally misplaced optimism and some questionable attributions, one day the Ontario Gallery may become the Albertina of the New World.

For now, ninety drawings, many but not all prime, have been gathered for a travelling exhibition devised by the Curator of Prints and Drawings, Dr Katherine Lochnan. Dr Lochnan has also edited a catalogue to the works exhibited, laudably specific and free of intrusive theoretical essays. (The only important lapse in the catalogue's coherence is in the scattering of information: end-notes in one place, provenance in another, bibliography in a third. It would be convenient to the reader to place it all under the catalogue number.) As a tribute to its proven enterprise, the Dulwich Gallery in London was selected for the first international visit. Balance has been achieved by restricting most artists to one work apiece, although it is a pity that one of the finest of draughtsmen, Ingres, is represented only by a study of drapery.

The most striking of the early drawings, a study in red chalk of a serpentine male nude, was drawn by Guiseppe Cesari (c. 1568-1640) in c.1595. Famous in his own time, and knighted by the Aldobrandini Pope Clement VIII as Cavaliere d'Arpino for his decorative work in St Peter's and the Lateran Baptistry, his brightness has been dimmed by the fame of the contemporaneous Bolognese School and that of Caravaggio, who was for a while his assistant, and to the end esteemed Cesari, taking hints from Cesari's Betrayal of Christ for his own version now in the Dublin National Gallery. Cesari in turn owned two paintings by Caravaggio until they were seized from him by the rapacious Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Clement's Borghese successor, Pope Paul V. It will be seen that not all the Renaissance Cardinals were princely patrons. Cardinal Scipione, having arrested Cesari on the pretext of non-payment of papal dues, confiscated his collection of 150 pictures, some of which remain in the Villa Borghese, now owned by the Italian state.

Cesari admired Michelangelo and imitated his heroic muscular figures, although Cesari's Atlantes are generally more thickset. The curved linear shading of this sketch admirably conveys weight and volume and the contour, in this instance, expresses distress. A more finished version in the Uffizi Gallery shows the subject tied to a tree and pierced by arrows, which supports Herwarth Rottgen's deduction that both drawings are preliminary studies for the lost St Sebastian that Cesari was commissioned to paint for the church of S. Bastionello, now demolished, in Rome (Herwarth Rottgen, Il Cavaliere Cesari d'Arpino. Rome 2002, p.290). If that is so, the vigorous drawing is a sad relic of what Cesari achieved.

Tobias and the Angel, c. 1656, by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669), is a touching composition concentrated on the gaze exchanged between the Archangel Raphael and Tobias: the utter trust of Tobias (in his quest for a cure for his father's blindness) requited by the firm reassurance of Raphael as he points (he way ahead. The drawing is closely related to Cortona's Guardian Angel of about the same year, in the Palazzo Corsini in Rome; also to a preliminary study for The Guardian Angel in the British Royal Collection.

An unusually restrained study in carefully drawn brown ink by Salvator Rosa (1615-73) represents A Poet in a Garden (c.1640). The poet is in no bardic frenzy but instead broods in meditative repose, in spite of the myrtles in his cap, and pauses over the next phrase he will write in his imposing notebook. …

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