T his second iteration of the new-format Master Works on Paper from Five Centuries sale – first held, with great success, in London last July – again presents a selection of exceptional drawings, watercolours and gouaches that together chart in fascinating ways the development of the art of drawing in Europe over the centuries, and the great variety of functions that this many-faceted art form served.
A key highlight is also one of the earliest drawings in the sale: the immensely refined and moving, rediscovered Head of a Young Woman Looking Down, drawn by the young Fra Bartolommeo in the late 1490s. Though clearly an image of the face of a real person, posed in the studio, this transcendent work was surely intended to serve as the model for a painted figure of the Madonna, highlighting the ambiguity of function to be found in many images of the human face (discussed in more detail in the small feature below).
Bookending the sale at the other end is another portrait, the charming study by Degas for his 1886 painting, Hélène Rouart in her Father's Study, in the National Gallery, London.
Returning to the earlier Italian schools, other highlights range from Lelio Orsi’s majestic modello for his lost 1544 wall painting decorating the clock tower in the central square of Reggio Emilia, through the brooding and enigmatic head study, in oil on paper, by Domenico Beccafumi, to Guercino’s astonishingly refined, grand self-portrait, brilliantly drawn in red and black chalks.
Still in Italy, there is a group of six exceptional 18th-century drawings from the collection formed by the Duc de Talleyrand. These include three superbly animated studies by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, and a spectacular, incredibly rapidly drawn, late study by Francesco Guardi, depicting the view from in front of the Basilica of San Marco, looking across towards San Giorgio Maggiore.
From the French-speaking world, the 18th century is represented by excellent works by Fragonard, Hubert Robert and Greuze, as well as one of the rare and very beautiful portrait drawings in red, black and white chalks, by the Swiss master of pastels, Jean-Etienne Liotard. And from England, there are fine, representative landscapes by Turner, Constable and Girtin, and also another rare and powerful portrait drawing, by Joseph Wright of Derby.
A selection of Dutch, Flemish, German and later works round out this snapshot of the amazing range and variety of works of quality to found within the field of Works on Paper.
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Venetian Drawings from the Collection formed by the Duc de Talleyrand
Ever since the time of their creation, the lively and very beautiful drawings of 18th-century Venice have held particular appeal for British collectors, a tendency epitomised by the activities of Consul Joseph Smith (circa 1682-1770), British consul in Venice from 1744 until 1760, who amassed an immense collection of these drawings, many of them acquired directly from the artists; Consul Smith’s collection was ultimately sold en bloc to King George III, and now forms a significant core of the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle.
In France, too, Venetian drawings have long been much appreciated, and the six fine sheets offered here originate from one of the most important French collections of drawings by Venetian artists, formed in the late 19th and early 20th century by Marie-Pierre-Louis Hélie de Talleyrand-Périgord, Duc de Talleyrand (1859-1937).
In the early 1990s, the drawings were acquired by Patrick and Mavis Walker. Over some forty years, beginning in the late 1970s, the Walkers were enthusiastic collectors across a range of areas, but Venetian drawings of the 18th century, with their lightness of touch, all-pervading sense of humour, and brilliance of technique, were particular dear to their hearts. In addition to their collecting activities, the Walkers were staunch supporters of London’s Foundling Museum, a fascinating charitable foundation with an important collection dating from the 18th century. Patrick was Chairman of the Museum from 1999-2006 and led a successful fundraising campaign enabling the Museum to be opened to the public in 2004, and permitting the display of the Foundling Hospital’s historic collection. It is interesting, in this context, that the superb Guardi drawing (lot 31) was formerly owned by the Cavendish-Bentinck family, one of whose scions, Margaret Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (1715-1785) was a signatory, to the Ladies’ Petition, which went before King George II in 1735 and called for the establishment of the Foundling Hospital. Founded four years later, the Hospital was the UK’s first children’s charity and first public art gallery.
The human face: expressions, likenesses and studies
Over the centuries, artists have sought to capture the features, expressions and emotions of the human face in many different ways, and for many different reasons. This sale offers a particularly revealing selection of drawings of this type.
The most straightforward of these drawings to interpret are the true portraits, yet even these vary enormously in style, technique, scale and approach, reflecting the personalities of the various draughtsmen, and the milieus in which they worked. Guercino, in his splendid, immensely refined self-portrait (Lot 23), has clearly worked incredibly hard to show himself at his very best, choosing (perhaps with the aid of multiple mirrors) the one viewpoint from which his famous squint could not be seen, and dressing himself in a lavish, cut silk jacket worthy of one of his aristocratic patrons. The handling in the face is equally refined, the softly worked chalks capturing the fall of light with immense subtlety, and the image as a whole is as grand as grand can be.
What a contrast in style with another spectacular Guercino head study in the sale, the astonishingly freely drawn Head of a man in profile (Lot 25), executed almost entirely in broadly applied brown washes which, despite their almost abstract, colour-block quality, superbly capture the fall and play of light on the subject’s head. Though perhaps made from a live studio model, this is a study of pose, movement and light, not a likeness, and would have been made if not as the study for a figure in a specific painting, then at least as a prototype that could be available in the studio, for use in this way.
Employing a combination of chalks similar to Guercino’s self-portrait, Jean-Etienne Liotard’s Portrait of Jacob Tronchin (Lot 43), dating from some 120 years later (circa 1758), is just as refined in handling and sensitive in its capturing of the personality of the sitter, yet subtly different in mood. Here, there is none of the opulence of Guercino’s image; Liotard shows his sitter, a member of a prominent Geneva family for whom he made many portraits, in a confident yet deliberately understated way that reflects the Calvinist restraint of the 18th-century Swiss elite.
Still in some ways restrained, yet utterly different in aesthetic and sensibility, is Joseph Wright of Derby’s mesmerising and technically brilliant Study of a girl in a turban with pompom and frilled collar (Lot 42), executed within a decade or two of Liotard’s portrait, but in yet another, very different cultural milieu, that of Enlightenment London. Though surely made as a portrait of a specific (if today unidentified) sitter, this powerful, monochrome image is much more than a touching portrait of a thoughtful young woman; in its dramatic lighting and distinctive tonalities, it is a fascinating reflection of all the innovations in science and printmaking that so captivated and intrigued Wright of Derby and his contemporaries.
The next portrait in our series was made in 1816 by a Swiss-born artist who settled in London: Johann Heinrich Füssli, known in England as Henry Fuseli. His dashing portrait sketch (lot 41) probably depicts the young daughter of a noble Spanish diplomat, and is full of the artist’s characteristic passion and wildness of execution. Fuseli stands at the head of a particularly British school of visionary art, often thoroughly eccentric yet always exciting, which also encompasses very different figures such as William Blake, John Martin and Samuel Palmer.
Finally, from much later in the 19th Century, we have the serene study by Edgar Degas (Lot 74) for his intimate 1886 portrait of Hélène Rouart in her Father's Study, now in the National Gallery, in London.
How differently these five artists approached the process of making a drawn portrait, and how much each work tells us about its maker, its subject and the time and place in which they both lived.
Turning the clock right back, one of the blazing stars of this sale is another head study, but not a portrait as such: the remarkable, rediscovered Head of a Young Woman, Looking down to the left (Lot 8), drawn in the late 1490s by Fra Bartolommeo. Just as innocent and direct an image as the Degas, this superbly sophisticated and very well preserved early drawing by the great Florentine master was certainly drawn from life, and has all the intense observation of a portrait, but was surely made to serve as the basis for the figure of the Madonna in a painting. Here, the features of an individual have been transformed into a more universal image of the symbol of purity, holiness and piety, and the artist’s own intense spirituality is abundantly clear.
Another extremely original drawing that looks almost as though it could have been made as a portrait is the intense study of the Head of a Young Man (Lot 12), a rare work in oil on paper by Domenico Beccafumi. Conveying the emotions of its subject with great immediacy, this almost timeless image is in fact a direct study for a background figure in the artist’s most important painting, commissioned in 1529.
Finally, we come to a magnificent, red chalk drawing of the Head of a Man in Profile (Lot 45) that could never be taken for a portrait. It is a study by Jean-Baptiste Greuze for the figure of the furious father in his major 1777 painting, The Father’s Curse: The Ungrateful Son, in the Louvre. Here, harnessing all the power of his remarkable chalk technique, Greuze draws like a man possessed, every stroke of the chalk capturing and conveying the intense anger and movement of his figure.
How many ways can a face or a portrait be drawn? An infinite number, but these nine exceptional works at least give a sense of some of the myriad possible approaches to the representation of that window onto the soul: a person’s face.