Drawings by Old Masters: Lasting Influences

Two exhibitions of Old Master drawings that are currently on view in New York City—Rome After Raphael, at the Morgan Library & Museum, and The Drawings of Bronzino, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—explore several interesting issues, including the influences of two of the most important figures in the history of art, Raphael and Michelangelo, and the changing opinions about their bodies of work. The Morgan show "takes Raphael’s art as its starting point and ends with the dawn of a new era, as seen in the innovations of Annibale Carracci," while the exhibition on Bronzino (through April 18, 2010) presents "nearly all the known drawings by, or attributed to, this leading Italian Mannerist artist."

Study of Male Nude
by Michelangelo, ca. 1504, black chalk
highlighted with white gouache, 10 5/8 x 7 3/4.
Collection the Graphische Sammlung
Albertina, Vienna, Austria.

Even though Raphael lived a relatively short life (1483–1520), his elegant, sweet representations of biblical figures and monumental compositions had a profound influence on generations of painters. Michelangelo lived a long and productive life (1475–1564), and his depictions of muscular, powerful figures changed the way artists presented the human form—even into modern times.

Joseph with Jacob and His Brothers
(fragment of modello from the tapestry, 
Joseph Recounting his Dream of the
Sun, Moon, and Stars)
by Agnolo Bronzino, ca. 1546-48, black chalk,
traces of squaring in black chalk on off-white
paper glued onto secondary paper support,
17 1/4 x 13 1/16. Collection the Ashmolean
Museum, Oxford, England.

Even though generations of artists found inspiration in the work of Raphael and Michelangelo, critics were not nearly as impressed with the way their influence played out. Bronzino's reputation seems to have suffered greatly from the changing opinions about figurative art based on the Renaissance example, and it wasn't until the 1960s that scholars developed a sincere appreciation of Bronzino's talents.

So what insights can we gain from reviewing the work in these two exhibitions? One is that there is great value in looking at the way Old Masters presented the human figure; composed paintings of figures within architectural spaces and in the landscape; and used drawings as a way of defining the images they would expand in paintings, tapestries, and frescoes. Another is that it is prudent and valuable to copy some of the poses and compositional schemes worked out by great artists such Raphael and Michelangelo. Finally, it is important to remember that critics will love something one day and hate it the next. Artists must lead and critics must follow, not the other way around, because artists search for a truth while critics deal with a reflection of that truth.

M. Stephen Doherty
Editor-in-chief

One thought on “Drawings by Old Masters: Lasting Influences

  1. Kisu says:

    “…Artists must lead and critics must follow, not the other way around, because artists search for a truth while critics deal with a reflection of that truth…”

    I agree. Unfortunately, it never really works that way in the real world! And now more than ever, commercial agendas overwhelm and complicate the situation.

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