In establishing the artistic milieu in which a portrait drawing like this was made, a clear understanding of the techniques and media used is essential, though not always easy to attain. This drawing is almost exclusively executed with the point of the brush and very dark grey ink. It is possible that the entire surface of the paper was first washed light grey, and many of the highlights seem to have been achieved by revealing the original white of the paper, rather than through the addition of white heightening, as would appear to be the case at first glance. That said, in some places, like the nose and the right eyebrow, the draughtsman does seem to have employed some kind of beige heightening.
In a drawing of this considerable age, telling the difference between black chalk and grey wash can sometimes be surprisingly difficult. Here, the long strokes in the figure’s chest and neck and the more subtle ones on the face seem at first sight to be black chalk, but microscopic analysis reveals they are in fact executed with a brush, using a very dry wash which leaves an intermittent, granular line, much more reminiscent of the effect of chalk, rather than a fluid, continuous one of the type seen in, for example, the celebrated point-of-the-brush figure drawings of Albrecht Dürer. In the face, we can also see a pattern of tiny dots, which serve to define the nuances of form and volumes, and to intensify the darker areas, for instance in and below the eyes. This combination of lines and dots reveals the knowledge of a technique employed in miniatures and illuminations in order to achieve variety and subtlety of details – something that is very much in evidence in the work of Jean Fouquet.
The other very striking quality of the present work is the sense of monumentality, and almost sculpted forms, effects that are highlighted by the simplicity and directness in the rendering of the likeness of the sitter. Grete Ring’s 1949 description of Fouquet’s painted portraits is enlightening when considering the immediacy and presence of the present image: ‘Fouquet sees his models in simple masses, in large planes. His images have the monumentality of carved and coloured stones. They are motionless, silent, and impenetrable. They are very real, perhaps realistic never naturalistic.’1
The drawing presented here the first time is technically not at all far from one of the very few that is generally believed to be by Jean Fouquet, the Portrait of a Man wearing a Hat in the Hermitage Museum, in Saint Petersburg.2 That head is of a similar size (280 by 207 mm), and is executed, in the area of the hat and what appears to be a band just below, with a similar use of the point of the brush, characterized by lines and dotted areas, on paper washed grey, although in the St. Petersburg drawing the artist has also employed black chalk, white heightening, and touches of pastel. Fouquet’s talent for realistic likeness achieves an intensity and introspection that perfectly captures the sitter’s personality.
Both technically and in terms of the facial type and mood of the image, this previously unknown drawing seems to be extremely close to the world of Fouquet and his workshop - more so than to the work of the leading Netherlandish artists of the same period, whose very rare drawings tend to be executed in metalpoint or chalk. All the same, the drawing fits very well in the broader tradition of Northern Renaissance portraiture, where we find a persistent interest in the faithful rendering of facial characteristics, typically achieved through the highest quality of execution and the use of inventive and experimental techniques.
Though no precise attribution has yet to be identified for this impressive study, it seems to be a very good candidate for inclusion in the tiny surviving body of large scale French portrait drawings of the 15th century.
1. G. Ring, A Century of French Painting 1400–1500, London 1949, p. 26
2. St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum, inv. no. 3895. The attribution to Fouquet was first proposed by Guiffrey in 1906 ('Un portrait français du XV siècle au Musée de l'Ermitage', Les Arts, 1906, pp. 31-32), but not unanimously accepted by scholars. See F. Avril, Jean Fouquet. Peintre et enlumineur du XVe siècle, exhib. cat., Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 2003, no. 12, p. 144, reproduced
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