Drawing Exhibition of the Month: Silverpoint Drawings in Washington

silverpoint drawing raphael

The Heads of the Virgin and Child, by Raphael, ca. 1502, silverpoint on warm white prepared paper, 10 x 7. Collection British Museum.  All artwork this article courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns” is an exhibition of metalpoint and silverpoint drawings past and present at the National Gallery of Art (NGA), in Washington, DC. On view through July 26, the show is a must see for anyone who loves silverpoint drawing or who loves the beauty of classical drawing in general, and it’s the Drawing Magazine Blog’s Exhibition of the Month for June.

From the museum’s website:

Since the Middle Ages, artists have used metalpoint to create some of the most beautiful and technically accomplished drawings ever made. Interest in the medium peaked during the Renaissance when it was embraced by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Albrecht Dürer. Revived in the nineteenth century, metalpoint continues to be practiced today.

An artist working in metalpoint uses a sharp, pointed 
instrument (a stylus) with a metal tip to draw on paper, 
parchment, or wood that has been specially coated. As 
the stylus travels across this slightly abrasive ground, a 
small amount of metal is scraped off and remains behind,
 creating a line. Almost any metal can be used, though only lead, which is softer than others, can be used without a ground. When first drawn, all metalpoint lines, including those made by gold, appear gray, an optical effect that stems in part from the breaking down of the metal into tiny particles. Some metals oxidize, or tarnish, to different colors over time: silver, for example, generally turns golden brown. Others, such as gold, never tarnish and remain gray. Goldpoint appeals to some artists for this reason, although it was rarely used before the nineteenth century. Most of the drawings in this exhibition are silverpoints, by far the most common form of metalpoint through history.

The exhibition also provides the focus of the “Material World” column in the upcoming summer issue of Drawing magazine, which looks at the history of silverpoint drawing and some of the myths that surround its use. Subscribe to Drawing to make sure you see that article, along with notices about other great exhibitions.

After its stay at the NGA, “Drawing in Silver and Gold” travels to the British Museum, in London, where it will be on view from September 10 through December 6. As a sample of what’s on offer, enjoy these drawings by Old Masters Raphael, Leonardo and Durer and by 20th-century artists Joseph Stella and Otto Dix.

silverpoint drawing leonardo

A Bust of a Warrior, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1475,

silverpoint drawing durer

A Dog Resting, by Albrecht Durer, silverpoint over traces of carbon on pink prepared paper, 5 x 7. Collection British Museum, London.

BPK 41.609

Self Portrait as a Draftsman, by Otto Dix, 1933, silverpoint on white prepared paper, 23 x 19. Collection Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett.

Self-Portrait. 1920s. Metalpoint on white opaque watercolor ground on wove paper, sheet: 30 3/16 x 22 3/16 inches (76.7 x 56.4 cm). Purchased with the Alice Newton Osborn Fund, the Katharine Levin Farrell Fund, the Margaretta S. Hinchman Fund, the Joseph E. Temple Fund, and with funds contributed by Marion Boulton Stroud and Jay R. Massey, 1988. 1988-21-1.

Self-Portrait, by Joseph Stella, ca. 1925, metalpoint on white opaque watercolor ground on wove paper, 30 x 22. Collection Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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