Art/Museums logo

Raphael to Renoir

Drawings from the Collection of Jean Bonna

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

January 21-April 26, 2009

"Carmen C. Bambach, curator of drawings and prints with "Study of Soldiers from the Conversion of Saul" by Raphael

Carmen C. Bambach, Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, who is shown with "Study of Soldiers from the Conversion of Saul," by Raphael, circa 1615-16, red chalk over extensive preliminary stylus underdrawing, 12 1/2 by 9 11/16 inches

By Michele Leight

For most artists drawing is where their spontaneous thoughts and ideas take form, and it is often their freshness that makes them so alluring. Raphael, Van Gogh and Victor Hugo did not have much in common stylistically, but they all made drawings. While it is unlikely that their paintings would hang next to each other in an exhibition, it is revealing to see their drawings displayed together in "Raphael to Renoir," an important show featuring 120 outstanding drawings from the private collection of Jean Bonna of Geneva, Switzerland, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on view from January 21-April 26, 2009.

"Holy Family with Shepherds and Angels" by Parmigianino

"The Holy Family with Shepherds and Angels," by Parmigianino, circa 1523-24, pen and brown ink, brush and gray-brown wash, over some traces of black chalk, scattered traces of gray pigment, 10 3/4 by 7 3/8 inches

Beginning with an exquisite, tiny brush and wash with white gouache on blue paper, "Kneeling Figure in Prayer," by Vittore Carpaccio, circa 1515, and ending with a magnificently smokey conte crayon and stumping by Georges Seurat, dated 1882-85, the drawings at "Raphael to Renoir" were selected from 500 master drawings by Italian, Northern European, French and British artists in the collection, spanning 500 years of the history of art. It is always fascinating to think about the works that were not chosen, given the quality of the ones on display here.

The Bonna Collection is considered among the finest in the world and the show was organized by George R. Goldner, Drew Heinz Chairman of the Metropolitan Museum's Drawings and Prints Department, and Carmen C. Bambach, Curator, who is shown with Raphael's "Study of Soldiers from the Conversion of Saul" at the top of the review. Drawings like this open up worlds within worlds, because they are closest to the artist's imagination, and the show made me crave more.

"Head of a Young Woman in Frontal View" by Federico Barocci

"Head of a Young Woman in Frontal View," by Federico Barocci, circa 1550-60, pastel, black chalk, and traces of white chalk with stumping, on blue paper (now faded), 15 9/16 by 9 3/4 inches

Drawings give us many clues about artists. They are in the process of becoming art works, whereas a painting is all figured out, the vision realized. It could be argued however that the exquisite "Head of a Young Woman in Frontal View" by Federico Barocci, (1535-1612), illustrated here, is a fully realized work of art, even though it is a drawing. She has a da Vinci other-worldliness, and she clearly inspired the artist.The wall text of this exhibition indicates that besides Mr. Bonna's deeply personal reaction to drawings, a preoccupation with the artist's initial ideas was among the guiding principles of the collection which was assembled over 20 years. That is not a long time to have amassed a collection of this caliber.

"Head of a Young Woman with a Coral Necklace" by Jacopo Vignali

"Head of a Young Woman with a Coral Necklace," by Jacopo Vignali, circa 1625-30, black chalk, various framing lines in black chalk simulating a frame (laid down), 12 13/16 by 8 3/4 inches

When artists do not have to commit to a highly polished "composition" during the sketching stage this offers us a sneak peek at their working methods. To be able to do this with sketches by artists of the caliber of Andrea del Sarto, Parmigianino (see The City Review article on the Correggio and Parmigianino exhibition), Canaletto, Claude Lorrain, Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard, Chardin, Goya. Ingres, Delacroix, Gericault, Manet, Whistler, Degas, Cezanne, Renoir, Redon, Gauguin and Van Gogh, among others, is a rare privelige. Displayed unpretentiously beside these blockbuster artists are works by a few that are virtually unknown, with no loss in quality, like the pensive, "Head of a Young Woman with a Coral Necklace" by Jacopo Vignali, (1592-1664). This sensitive drawing possesses a directness reminiscent of Rembrandt. The young woman is not quite beautiful, but she is compelling. How did these lesser known artists survive? Did they have modest patrons who helped them keep body and soul together, so they could spend their lives drawing and painting, or did they work two or three jobs to practice their art? There were no scholarships and fellowships in those days. Drawings bring us so much closer to artists. They make us wonder about their daily lives.

Two pastels by Jean-Simeon Chardin

Two pastels by Jean-Simeon Chardin, both circa 1777; Right: "Portrait of a Young Girl;" Left: "Portrait of a Young Boy," both 17 3/4 by 14 3/4 inches

Two exquisite portraits by Chardin rendered with supreme confidence and technical virtuosity in pastels in 1777 could be mistaken for paintings. However, their inclusion in an exhibition of drawings is a reminder that pastels are not quite paintings even if they look like them. Odilon Redon's poetic pastel "Sailing Boat with Two Passengers (La Barque)" was created in 1900 on heavily textured woven paper.

"Sailing Boat with Two Passengers (La Barque)" by Odilon Redon

"Sailing Boat with Two Passengers (La Barque), by Odilon Redon, circa 1900, pastel on wove paper, 23 1/16 by 19 inches

The freshness of chalk, pastel, crayon, pen and ink in the hands of some of the world's greatest artists are so stunning they blur the boundaries of the various disciplines, even when they span almost 400 years of artistic schools and sensibilities from the Renaissance to the late 19th century. Renoir's stunning "Nude Bathers with a Crab," illustrated below, gives every indication of the sensuous painting it would become, but this was not so of all the artists whose drawings are on view at this show.

"Nude Bathers with a Crab" by Renoir

"Nude Bathers with a Crab," by Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1897-1900, pastel

The earliest drawings demonstrate raw talent and rigorous classical training (some artists clearly had both talent and training) and those less naturally gifted like Van Gogh (1853-1890), whose "Houses in a Landscape" displays none of the virtuoso draughtsmanship of Raphael, Parmigianino or Ingres, a deficiency that eventually led him to invent his unique signature style. This drawing was executed in 1890, the year he committed suicide.

'Houses in a Landscape" by Van Gogh

"Houses in a Landscape," by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890, conte crayon and stumping, 9 1/4 by 12 15/16 inches

While Van Gogh's clumisness with crayon and pencil is evident in many of his drawings, this inconsistency did not transfer to his confident works in pen and ink, or his absolute genius when he moved to pigment and canvas. Van Gogh's inability to draw like the artists he so admired - which is obvious when his drawings are exhibited beside Degas bathers, or the portraits by Ingres and Gauguin illustrated here - only magnifies what he had to overcome because it did not come naturally or easily to him.

"Portrait of an Unidentified Woman" by Ingres

"Portrait of an Unidentified Woman," by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1816, graphite on woven paper, 8 1/16 by 6 1/8 inches

Ultimately, Van Gogh's struggles with drawing compelled him to invent a unique style of painting that holds its own today with the greatest artistic geniuses. But he recognized his flaw at the outset when he began drawing. Unlike many of the great virtuoso draughtsmen at this show, Van Gogh was essentially self-taught. He admired Gauguin's virtuosity, the ease with which he could draw and realize his compositions with confidence, while Van Gogh lagged behind, frustrated, agonizing at every turn. Perhaps it is his inconsistencies, his flaws, that make him one of the most widely reproduced and beloved artists of all time. It is Van Gogh's paintings - not Gauguin's - that are covered with glass in the most famous art museums today, because of the astronomical prices that are paid for them. This is ironic when none of his paintings sold during his lifetime. He never knew recognition, approval or fame.

"Two Tahitian Women: Study for Women by the Sea" by Gauguin

"Two Tahitian Women: Study for Women by the Sea," by Paul Gauguin, circa 1895-1900, conte crayon and charcoal, 16 15/16 by 12 inches

Gauguin and Van Gogh were friends and worked closely together, but theirs was a tenuous, often strained relationship, on one occassion resulting in the infamous slicing off of part of Van Gogh's ear, which he sent to Gauguin wrapped in paper. It was frustrating for Van Gogh to be around such raw talent in art making and in love making - Gauguin was equally adept at both - because neither came easily to him.

Perhaps it is because the Renaissance masters stressed the importance of drawing so emphatically that their pupils were able to cover the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and what today seem like acres of walls and ceilings in hundreds of Italy's churches and palaces with stunning murals. These flawless compositions were drawn to scale then painted. The least well known among them show a level of professionalism that would be hard to achieve today, even with our technology and sophisticated tools.The greatest Renaissance murals, like Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, were the work of genius. Michelangelo was three feet away from his mural the entire time he painted it, memorizing and drawing everything to scale like a human computer. He never saw the entire composition untill it was completed when the scaffold was removed. The success of the ceiling relied on the scale drawing beneath. Many of the Renaissance artists whose work is on view at this show would have been trained to work "blind" as Michelangelo did - just not as brilliantly - but many came close.

When the "canvas" is a dome in a chapel or the soaring ceiling of a ballroom in a ducal palace, it cannot be approached spontaneously! All Renaissance artists, not just the level of Raphael and Parmigianino, were well versed in painting on large scale murals because those were the commissions they most coveted and they were rigorously trained to realize them. The lesser known or talented artists assisted the great masters, which was the best training of all. "School of" and "studio or workshop of" are common attributions in Renaissance art, when it required teams of artists, sculptors, artisans and assistants to realize a project like a mural. The drawing or sketch was the first rung of the ladder, rolled out and carefully considered before anyone made a move.

"Three Studies of Female Heads" by Watteau

"Three Studies of Female Heads," by Jean Antoine Watteau, (circa 1718-19), Black, red and white chalk and stump, brush, gray-brown wash on beige paper, 7 1/2 by 5 inches

Raphael's "Study of Soldiers in the Conversion of Saul" (circa 1615-16), illustrated at the top of this review, is best appreciated in person. This drawing is a reminder of the rigorous steps that lay between a preliminary sketch and the final elaborate composition in most Renaissance art, which often told epic (usually biblical) tales in a series of "cartoons," respecting every fold, crease and shadow magnified on a gargantuan scale in the spectacular grand finale. The initial humble sketches and drawings like the ones on view at this show often morphed into a magnificent mural in a church, cathedral or ducal palace. As many of these drawings demonstrate, endless refining could rarely improve upon that first, magical sketch, when the artist was most inspired. The great masters of the Renaissance had a profound and lasting effect upon future generations of artists, including Watteau and Boucher whose drawings are illustrated here, because they set the bar as high as it was possible to go. "Study of Soldiers in the Conversion of Saul" by Raphael was originally from the collection of The Dukes of Devonshire at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, England.

The total command of the medium in the hands - or fingers - of artists of this stature is softened by the informality and spontaneity drawing offered them, including the option to render several views of a given subject within a single image or frame - like layering in digital film today, or sequencing in film. It was from these preliminary sketches that the final pose or "head shot" for the masterwork would be selected. The juxtaposition of some of the artists works at the show like Watteau (1684-1721) and Boucher (1703-1770) are intentional, and show how one generation of artists often influenced the next. Perhaps even more fascinating is how much "copying" from the great masters that preceeded them - or "drawing from the antique" - was encouraged.

"Bust of a Young Woman in a Shift with Her Hair Tired Up, Seen from Behind," by Boucher

"Bust of a Young Woman in a Shift with Her Hair Tied Up, Seen from Behind," by Francois Boucher, circa 1740, black, red and white chalk on fawn paper, 11 5/16 by 9 5/16 inches

"Copying" was a critical part of classical art training that often resulted in the artist retaining something of their teacher or master's "style," like Watteau's "Three Studies of Female Heads," and Boucher's "Bust of a Young Woman in a Shift with Her Hair Tied Up, Seen from Behind," illustrated above and below. The greatest artists rivaled or surpassed their masters or teachers, like shoots from a spring blossom. Leonardo da Vinci far surpassed his teacher Ghirlandao, who was a superb artist, but not a genius. Many pupils surpassed their teachers during the Renaissance, when the bar was set extremely high. A great teacher can be the match that lights the flame of inspiration.

"Study of a Young Woman..." by Boucher

"Study of a Young Woman Viewed in Full Length, Her Right Arm Resting on a Plinth," by Francois Boucher, 1761, black chalk with stump, heightened in white on brown paper, 20 by 11/16 by 15 9/16 inches

Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) was a modern classicist, which sounds like a contradiction, but it is not. His rigorous attention to detail and emphasis on drawing is evident in all his paintings. Cezanne is often called the father of modern art, although like most of the artists in this show, his art was far too contemporary and cutting edge for public appreciation or understanding in his lifetime. Cubism changed the course of art history, taking it in an exciting new direction. This beautiful watercolor by the solitary, taciturm genius displays the bare bones of Cubism, demonstrating how Cezanne broke up a surface into lines, planes and mass.

"Wooded Landscape" by Cézanne

"Wooded Landscape," by Paul Cézanne, circa 1895, graphite and watercolor

Cézanne's watercolor bears a striking resemblance to a sketch illustrated below by the great romantic artist Eugene Delacroix' (1798-1863) whom he greatly admired, which is documented in his correspondence and diary. Cézanne had no kind words for Ingres or David, however, even though they were "haute" classicists. He had strong romantic inclinations in his youth, which emerged once again in his later, more emotional paintings. Although Cezanne is most closely associated with the poet Emile Zola, he had a lifelong affinity for the romantic literature and poetry of Baudelaire and Flaubert, but the romantic influence of Delacroix was most profound. Cézanne owned three paintings, six prints and two original lithographs by Delacroix, and he made many copies from the artists paintings, notably "The Apotheosis of Delacroix," a title taken from his diary, shown the artist working on it in his studio in a famous photograph dated 1894.

"Fuschias in a Pot" by Delacroix

"Fuschias in a Pot," by Eugene Delacroix, circa 1855, watercolor over conte crayon

George Goldner, Chairman of The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Drawings and Prints Department enthusiastically explained that the winsome watercolor of "A Wild Boar Piglet" was painted by Hans Hoffman in 1578, one of four beautiful "nature" drawings at the show influenced by Albrecht Durer, that supreme master of realism and all things natural.

"A Wild Boar Piglet" by Hoffmann

"A Wild Boar Piglet," by Hans Hoffmann, 1578, watercolor and bodycolor on vellum, 11 13/16 by 17 15/16 inches

Durer's myopic attention to detail was rescued from becoming mere illustration by a startling sense of immediacy and freshness, as if the animal or plant might at any moment sprout or leap from the surface, like this adorable little boar. A master artist of the past, Durer inspired a stylistic revival among a younger generation of artists like Hoffman.

It is somehow fitting that like an artistic daisy chain the legacy of the great artists of the past lives on in the work of younger generations of artists who admired them.

Click here to order the catalogue from

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects


Home Page of The City Review 

©The City Review Inc 2009. Written permission to use any part of this article must be obtained in writing from The City Review or Michele Leight