As my footsteps trace marks through the momentarily white, blizzard-struck sidewalks of Madison Avenue during Master Drawings Week, I think about the artist as they began to make their own marks on a blank sheet of paper. What were their choices? To use black chalk or pen and ink, or watercolor; make a finished work or jot a brief note of an idea. To lay out a complete composition or create and recreate a motif in order to exercise their mind, their eye, and their hand. We love drawings because they give us some sense of intimacy with the maker. They open for us a small door to the artist’s thoughts; they bring us close to the moment the work was made.  We can see Michelangelo meticulously modeling the back of one of the sibyls in the Sistine Chapel. We can look over the shoulder of Jacques-Louis David concertedly redefining a composition that he would paint, working out the drapery and the deliberate interaction of poses. We can sit on a hillside with John Constable capturing clouds on an autumn day. And we can sway with Auguste Rodin rendering the movement of a dancer. Even highly finished sheets give us insight into the workings of the artist – corrections or retracings indicate hesitation and rethinking.

There is an inherent challenge to making a drawing, a medium that necessitates brevity and a clever use of materials to evoke on paper what can be created in more elaborate ways in painting. Rembrandt could evoke the squirming struggle of a child in its mother’s arms with a few quick lines of chalk. Samuel Palmer created his late landscapes by adding and scraping layers of graphite, watercolor, bodycolor, and gum arabic. He highlighted with touches of  gold or merely a striking line of white.

Our appreciation of drawing requires a different kind of looking than that afforded to highly worked paintings or bold contemporary art. We need to come in close, take in the details, and hold the piece in our hands. What is there? And what is not? Drawing is a medium that evokes questions. What was the function? Was it for the artist’s own use or for a patron? Is it from life or imagination? Why did they employ this medium rather than another? Why did they focus on this figure? Why did they go over that passage many times? What happened to all the other drawings by this master? The answers, if we can arrive at them, bring us closer to understanding the artist and how they set about their work.

There is something about drawing that we can all appreciate at a visceral level because all of us have drawn at some point in our lives. So, we can all admire, and perhaps even envy, a fluidly rendered figure; feel the force behind a vigorous passage of hatching; or relate to a draftsman’s belabored efforts to render a foreshortened hand.

So, during this week as our discussions fill with questions of quality, condition, rarity, and value, let us take a moment to be reminded of  the masterful hands and minds that have faced blank pages.

Nadine M. Orenstein

Drue Heinz Curator in Charge

Department of Drawings and Prints

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian 1475-1564),
Studies for a Libyan Sibyl (recto), ca. 1510-11,
Chalk on paper,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 24.197.2
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Master Drawings New York 2018

Saturday 27 January to Saturday 3 February 2018

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Friday 26 January, 4-8pm

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Sunday 28 January
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