Portrait Drawings from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts: Online Exclusive

If you’re a fan of a traditional, classical approach to drawing, you’ll love the current exhibition at The Drawing Center, in New York City, which features a wide selection of portrait drawings from the collection of the esteemed Ecole des Beaux-Arts, in Paris. The school is virtually synonymous with the academic approach to drawing and painting, and much of its massive collection (more than 120,000 total works, including some 15,000 drawings) reflects this tendency.

In the spring issue of Drawing writer John A. Parks walks us through several highlights of this exhibition, providing valuable context about both the artists and sitters. Featured here are two examples of portrait drawing from the exhibition that we weren’t able to fit into the printed article, along with an explanation of the show’s unusual installation.

If you’d like to see these works in person, the exhibition is on view through June 28. If you can’t make it to New York but want to see more of this exhibition, download or order a copy of the new issue of Drawing, or click here to subscribe to the magazine.

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Portrait of a Woman Viewed Frontally,  by Jacob Ferdinand Voet, 1675, pastel on blue paper, 8 7/8 x 6 5/16. Collection Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France. Image courtesy The Drawing Center, New York, New York.

Jacob Ferdinand Voet: Portrait of a Woman Viewed Frontally

Voet (1639–1689) was a Flemish painter who lived for most of his adult life in Rome, where a lively colony of Netherlandish artists resided. Voet was patronised as a portrait painter by many wealthy Italian families and became well known for his portraits of young women. He was eventually evicted from Rome by Pope Innocent XI on account of paintings of women with revealing décolleté, and he subsequently worked in Florence and Turin. This drawing shows Voet using some version of pastel, a medium that was then in its early stages of development. At this time it was usually made with a mixture of wax and pigment, making for a soft but rather difficult-to-manage mark. The artist allows some of the color of the blue paper to make its presence felt under the flesh hues of the pastel to create a rich feeling of light, particularly in the half-tone shadows. The sensitive description of the dress contrasts with the somewhat schematized rendering of the head.

Portrait of Pierre Gillet, Procurer at the Parliament of Paris,  by Hyacinthe Riguad, ca. 1659–1743, black and white chalk on blue paper, 12 5/16 x 9¾. Collection Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France. Image courtesy The Drawing Center, New York, New York.

Hyacinthe Riguad: Portrait of Pierre Gillet, Procurer at the Parliament of Paris

Rigaud (1659–1743) initially trained as a tailor in his native Perpignan before studying painting in Montpellier and Lyon. By his early twenties he was in Paris where he won the Prix de Rome. He didn’t take up the offer to study in Italy, however, staying in France to establish a career. He worked his way up through the ranks of the academy, establishing himself as a portrait painter with a reputation of great exactitude.

In this drawing we get a sense of the searching precision of the artist. Trial lines are visible around the outline of the head, evidence of the artist’s willingness to pursue corrections. Every line and indentation in the face has been carefully observed, while the sitter’s hair and clothing are rendered with exquisite fullness. The white chalk is used with considerable skill to describe the movement of light on the form. The confident pose and fine clothing reflect the sitter’s important position as an administrator of the Paris parliament. The drawing has been gridded, or “squared up” in preparation for the transfer of the image to a canvas.

Designing the Exhibition

In assembling “Portraits from the École des Beaux-Arts Paris,” co-curator Brett Littman faced the age-old curatorial hurdle of how to present artworks in a way that is fresh, inviting and perhaps challenging for the viewer while at the same time allowing the art to speak for itself. His solution was two-fold. Inspired by the small gallery in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome that houses Velazquez’ portrait of Pope Innocent X, he has built a small room in the Drawing Center that will house just four drawings. “Four portraits from different centuries will be looking at each other,” he says. “These will be changed every week, while the remainder of the portraits are on display in the main exhibition space.” The idea is to create a dialogue across the centuries in a space that encourages close contemplation. Meanwhile the main exhibition space will be darkened on three walls with the drawings displayed along the fourth wall hanging in Salon style atop each other in chronological order. “I’m hoping that this seems historically grounded and correct,” says Littman. “It’s the way that these kinds of works might have been displayed in the past. There will be wall texts and labels for each work but not a lot of didactic information. I want the show to be about looking and I want the viewers to come up with their own theories about the works.”

John A. Parks

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