The Encounter

Drawings at the National Portrait Gallery:

This exhibition is very aptly named, because the sense of a relationship- however fleeting-between an artist and a sitter is very palpable. As well as this, looking at each drawing is an encounter in itself: the realism and immediacy in so many of these artworks is what makes this exhibition so special.

The exhibition was divided into categories, which was designed to demonstrate the different purposes of drawings in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. I feel that this categorisation was a little loose. For example, “Capturing likeness” and “Personal presence” could easily apply to the majority of the drawings on display. However, it was interesting to have drawings categorised as “Drawing in the studio: artists and assistants”, as it highlighted how drawing was a crucial part of an artist’s development of an artwork. In April, I went to a talk at the Courtauld Institute specifically on drawings, and this also explored this concept. The speaker discussed how drawings became indicative of the development of the artist, aided by Vasari’s emphatic praise of disegno.

In light of this, it was interesting to see first-hand how drawings were an artist’s way of practising their technique. An example is a self-portrait by Domenico Beccafumi in red and black chalk, which originally formed part of a sketchbook. By comparing it to a painted self-portrait, we can see how drawings are a record of the artist’s thinking process.

BeccafumiBeccafumi painting


One of the reasons why drawings are so interesting is that, like miniatures, they have an intimacy and immediacy that is sometimes lacking from full-scale paintings. In this exhibition, the drawings are striking for their individuality, engagement or spontaneity. There is something carefree about many of them that brings a real freshness to the representation of the sitters. The artist of which this is most true is Annibale Carracci. There was a section dedicated to him and his studio, and the drawing which I felt the greatest sense of an ‘encounter’ with was that of Guilio Pedrizzano, a lutenist.


Carracci’s use of ink here is so dexterous and so full of energy, but not overdone, so that the focus is on the sitter, rather than on the technique. For me, his eyes are the most important part of the portrait, because they are looking straight out at us in a way which is frank, but not unnervingly piercing, so that we can really sense that he was a friend of the artist. The use of ink is also very knowing: Carracci understands when to suggest tone, and when to leave the blank space to speak for itself. And by the looks of it, he achieved all of this in minutes. He used it as a basis for a painted portrait of Pedrizzano, but it lacks the charisma of the drawing.

Potrait of a lute player


Holbein is undoubtedly the star of this show. Whereas the poster boys Leonardo and Rembrandt only have one work each on display, there are eight breathtaking drawings by Holbein, and it was in this section that it was the most crowded. I have marvelled at his paintings in the National Gallery and Hampton Court, but I have never seen one of his drawings before, and his subtlety means that they merit being seen in the flesh.

Holbein is a classic example of how art can dissolve the boundaries between the past and the present. This goes beyond simply making history visual. He makes history personal, intimate, and very much alive. To look into the eyes of those who lived through the break with Rome, with its complex social and political fallout, highlights history as being something that plays out in the backdrop of the lives of individuals.

Woman wearing a white headress 2
Woman wearing a white headdress c.1532-43

He was clearly fascinated by faces. These drawings show this more than his paintings, because there is no need for him to pay much attention to the clothing of the sitters. This means that our focus is immediately on the face, and these faces are conveyed with a gentle precision, which renders each line with pinpoint accuracy, but is never cruelly exposing.

Man wearing a cap
Man wearing a black cap c.1535

There are also quite a few metalpoint drawings on display, and I found them utterly beguiling to look at, because it is a technique which demands so much elegance and precision. The effect created is one of delicacy and gentleness, giving the evocation of soft light falling onto the sitter’s features, which is taken further with the use of white heightening.

metalpoint with hihlights
Woman wearing a hood, Domenico Ghirlandaio c.1485-90

Despite the bagginess of the categorisation and the deceptive tagline ‘from Leonardo to Rembrandt’, this is a stunner of an exhibition which I enjoyed immensely. It understands the power of drawings from both an art historical and an emotional point of view, and it presents us with some incredible artworks that are wholly deserving of wider recognition.

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