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The Artful Traveler: The Frick’s Stunning Drawings from London’s Courtauld Gallery

Cézanne’s “Apples, bottle and chairback”

By Bobbie Leigh

What makes a drawing a “master drawing?”  How do you define the nature of mastery?  One answer is to visit Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery, a collection of 58 drawing from  The Courtauld Gallery,London.  Each one, whether a study for a painting, a quickly rendered sketch, or a  form of note-taking to record some great visual experience,  displays  mastery  of the subject  as well as a range of materials  –pencils, chalks,  pen-and-ink,  crayon,  and a rare watercolor such as  Paul Cezanne’s  Apples, Bottle and Chairback.


Mantegna’s study for “Christ at the Column”

No one answer will adequately explain what constitutes a master drawing, but as Vasari wrote  it is a “certain conception and judgment,” a visible expression of inner thoughts  translated  into something concrete with pen and chalk on paper. If you only see one  master  work in this show such as  Andrea Mantegna’s study for Christ at the Column, a  mid-1460s pen and brown ink  drawing,   a  visit  to the Frick  would  still be worthwhile.   Here we have a heroic, idealized  depiction of Christ, whose strong, muscular body contrasts with his downturned head and  facial agony.  Mantegna (1431-1506) was an ardent student of Greek and Roman sculpture and  departing from the usual  biblical  account,  he endows the  Savior   with a body worthy of a Greek God, while his head  is bent  and  his facial expression, tormented  and anguished.

Ingres’ “Study for La Grande Odalisque”


Among the many  standouts  among such great masters as  da Vinci, Durer, Michelangelo, Peter Paul Rubens,  Rembrandt, Watteau, van Gogh, Picasso and many others, , a  Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) study for his painting  La Grande Odalisque is especially riveting. Right out of the Thousand and One Nights,  this ethereal  nude  odalisque ( the Turkish word for a harem slave) is hardly classical. Instead,  her body   is lithe, elongated, and  barely there.  She has no physical reality, just an immense sensual presence.  Critics of the time attacked  her for having “neither bones, nor muscles, nor life.”  Yet there is more life in those  dancer’s legs and immensely  long arms than in more traditional  Romantic era French nudes.


Totally fresh, modern, and spontaneous, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s   (1864-1901) In Bed  depicts a woman, probably a prostitute, peering at the painter  with sleepy eyes. She  seems  reluctant to get out of bed.  Her feet are enormous with soles peering out from under the crumpled sheets. According to the catalog the “thrust of his lines, confident and quickly done, convey a sense of vigor and excitement”  in spite of the sleepy scene.   Toulouse- Lautrec used two different mediums—a soft black chalk and a harder pencil line which emphasizes the woman’s face and hair.   The hint that she has been exploited is simply not part of the drawing as in some of the artist’s other work.


Bruegel the Elder’s “Kermesse at Hoboken”

The techniques  on view here  vary from preliminary sketches to designs for finished art works, but what unites the various Italian, Dutch, Flemish, German, Spanish works is an  extraordinarily high level of draftsmanship.  Who can match  Pieter Bruegel the  Elder’s  (c 1525-1569) detailed drawings of peasant life.   On view at the Frick is Kermis  [church festival] at Hoboken, an exuberant drawing, a design for an engraving, showing revelers at a festival in the Flemish village of Hoboken.


Ruben’s (1577-1640)  drawing, Helena Fourment, his second wife, is said to be one of the greatest of the masterworks at The Courtauld. She is 16 and about to be wed to the 53-year-old artist. The artist used black, red, and white chalk (retouched with pen and brown ink in some details). She is about to  lift off  a veil that is suspended from her headdress  which looks like a bar bell to contemporary eyes.  She looks directly at the viewer with a startling mix of bravado and  vulnerability.

This is the first time this prized collection has been made available  on  loan. Many of the drawings are being shown for the first time in New York.  Don’t miss it. On view  through  January 23, 2012.  The Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street; 212-288-0700, www.frick.org.

  Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.

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