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The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt at National Portrait Gallery
September 6, 2017
The ability of a portrait to record the likeness of someone from the past is not its only allure; such a work also documents a particular moment in time, an encounter between artist and sitter and a level of engagement between the two individuals. This small and charming exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery brings together 48 drawings to explore this aspect of portraiture in three intimate rooms. The works are selected from a variety of British private and public collections, including fifteen drawings from the Royal Collection as well as several pieces from Chatsworth House and the British Museum. The drawings offer great insight into artistic working practice, with many of them serving as technical studies and preparatory sketches. As they were often treated as studio ephemera, relatively few of them have survived, making this exhibition particularly noteworthy for the variety of works on offer. The drawings range in date from circa 1400 to 1650 and are produced in an array of different media, including chalk, pastel, ink and metalpoint. They also come from a wide assortment of artists, from Annibale Carracci to Anthony van Dyck, and from Albrecht Dürer to François Clouet. Accordingly, the exhibition has great diversity throughout and raises intriguing questions about this genre of art.
The drawings are divided into several groups, each dealing with the different motives behind producing such works of art. On entering the first room, one is confronted with the face of John Godslave, a clerk who worked at the court of Henry VIII and who was a protégé of the King’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. Wearing a fur collar, black gown and hat, Godslave looks directly at the viewer with an almost bashful expression on his face. He meets our gaze just as he once met the scrutiny of the artist Hans Holbein the Younger in circa 1532. It seems as though he has just looked up and caught Holbein’s eye; almost immediately he will look down again and the moment will have passed. The picture is astonishingly intimate, prompting the viewer to imagine the encounter that took place all those years ago and putting them in Holbein’s place. This is just one of eight portraits by the artist lent by Her Majesty the Queen. In the third room, the works comprise a whole wall of the exhibition, presenting us with an assortment of characters from the court of Henry VIII. A highlight includes Holbein’s Woman wearing a white headdress in which the sitter stares directly at the viewer with a confrontational gaze, her pose frontal and her expression determined. The gathering of these drawings provides a snapshot into Tudor life, documenting the epoch’s fashion and style, as well as functioning as a record of seven individual moments of interaction between artist and sitter.
Throughout the exhibition, many different types of individual are portrayed. The artists depicted not just the elite, typically represented in commissioned portraits, but figures from all walks of life, including studio assistants, personal acquaintances, children and even tradesmen. These are ordinary people, captured at diverse moments with varied moods and countenances. Some are aware of being observed, others are caught in personal reflections. Their expressions vary from self-conscious and resigned to bored, grumpy and proud. Gian Lorenzo Barberini’s Young boy wearing a wide collar presents a sullen, almost naughty boy who looks at the artist with an air of defiance. Meanwhile, in The artist’s shoemaker (c.1630) Carlo Dolci portrays a weary man in mid-conversation, his mouth open and a half-smile on his lips. This is a characterful portrait, possibly executed as a gift or in part payment for services rendered. Both sitters are depicted with a striking sense of immediacy and intensity. They participate in the exchange and exist in their portraits as real, engaged individuals.
Providing considerable understanding of creative practices and the techniques of drawing, The Encounter offers remarkable insight into the lives and encounters of a number of different artists. This is an engrossing exhibition which rewards the visitor with an intimate and fascinating glimpse of a diverse range of characters from the past.
By Amy Parrish
The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt, National Portrait Gallery, 13 July – 22 October 2017