Life Lines: Portrait Drawings from Dürer to Picasso at the Morgan

New York, NY, May 4, 2015Drawing is often seen as the most immediate of the fine arts, capturing a subject's essence in quick, suggestive strokes of chalk, pencil, or ink. This can be particularly evident in portrait drawing where the dynamism of the medium allows for the recording of a likeness in the here and now, while simultaneously offering clues into the relationship between artist and sitter.

In a new exhibition titled Life Lines: Portrait Drawings from Dürer to Picasso, opening June 12, the Morgan Library & Museum takes visitors on a fascinating exploration of the genre. Spanning five centuries and including more than fifty works—from Dürer’s moving sketch of his brother Endres to Picasso’s highly expressive portrait of the actress Marie Derval—the show features treasures from the Morgan’s collection as well as a number of notable drawings from private holdings. The exhibition is on view through September 8.

Life Lines is aptly named as no medium quite captures a person or the connection between artist and sitter like drawing,” said Peggy Fogelman, acting director of the Morgan. “Whether a dashed-off sketch of family life by Rembrandt or a preparatory study for a famous marble bust by Bernini, each work in this revealing exhibition is a window into a personal world.”

The drawings in the exhibition are organized thematically into four sections: Self-PortraitsFamily and FriendsFormal Portraits; and a final grouping, entitled Portraits?, that explores the boundaries of this type of work. The pieces range from early studies for paintings and sculptures to highly-finished drawings that stand alone as works in their own right.  What all of them share, however, is the image of a likeness of someone worth remembering, bearing testimony to the deeply human sentiment to leave a mark. 

THE EXHIBITION

I. Self-Portraits

“Selfies” are hardly a new phenomenon. Many artists have recorded their own likeness over the past five hundred years, and examples in this section range from Palma il Giovane (1544-1628) to Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Some artists like to faithfully record their image looking into a mirror. Others embed their likeness in a decorative or narrative context, often showing themselves as artists.

Italian Pier Leone Ghezzi (1674-1755), for example, portrays himself in fanciful costume, while holding a caricature of his likeness wearing a cape. This humorous work is a self-portrait within a self-portrait, demonstrating the whimsy of an artist best known for his ironic sketches of both Rome’s citizenry as well as notable visitors to the ancient city. Ghezzi’s two depictions of himself seem to stand facing one another, one pointing his finger at the other, as if in conversation.

II. Family and Friends

Many of the drawings presented of family and friends are not given the trappings of formal portraiture. They record the people closest to the artists: their children, spouse, siblings, and friends. Some of these drawings, such as Rembrandt’s (1606-1669) sketch of his wife Saskia asleep, are particularly intimate. 

Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) drawing of his younger brother Endres can be identified thanks to a portrait of him at the Albertina in Vienna. While that portrait, dated and inscribed, shows Endres on his thirtieth birthday, the drawing in Life Lines appears to be slightly later. More stylized than the earlier version, it shows Endres clad in a fur-trimmed coat and wearing his beret boldly aslant.

III. Formal Portraits

The largest group of drawings is devoted to more formal portraits, many of which would have been commissioned from the artists. A sketch of Cardinal Scipione Borghese by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), for example, is preparatory for a marble bust, while a portrait of Anna van Thielen and her daughter by Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) serves as a study for a painting. Van Thielen was the wife of the Antwerp painter Theodoor Rombouts (1597-1637).

Among the many extraordinary works with a more finished polish is an early drawing by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) depicting Marie Derval, a popular actress in Paris at the turn of the century. The energetic contour of the figure and her frightening stare lend the portrait an expressionist vigor reminiscent of the work of Picasso’s contemporary Edvard Munch (1863-1944).

IV. Portraits?

Some drawings defy the conventional notion of portraiture. Though resembling portraits in one way or another, they raise the question of what actually constitutes such a work. This section invites visitors to draw their own conclusions and reflect upon traditional boundaries of the genre.

The sitter posing for Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797),for example, is identified in the inscription. The artist made this impressive life study in preparation for one of several paintings based on Laurence Sterne’s 1768 novel, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy by Mr. Yorick. In the episode sketched out, the protagonist meets an old man weeping at the death of his donkey. The inscription reads: “Portrait of / John Stavely / who came from Hert- / fordshire with Mr. French / & sat to Mr. Wright in the character of the old man & his ass in the / Sentimental Journey”. But does this identifying text make the drawing a portrait?

And what about Hendrik Goltzius’s (1558-1617) staggering Young Man Holding a Skull and a Tulip, executed in 1614? A life-size “fantasy portrait,” it is a virtuoso finale to the artist’s series of pen-and-ink drawings in the style of engravings. The Latin inscription “Quis evadet? / Nemo” (“Who escapes? / No one”) and the symbols of the hourglass, skull, and tulip serve as a reminder of mortality and the transience of existence. Although the distinctive face was probably based on a young man whom Goltzius knew, the purpose of the drawing seems more to impart the foreboding message than to capture the likeness of the youth.

ARTSITS INCLUDED IN THE EXHIBITION

Albrecht Dürer, 1471-1528

Lavinia Fontana, 1552-1614

Hendrik Goltzius, 1558-1617

Palma il Giovane, 1544-1628

Jacob de Gheyn, 1565-1629

Ottavio Leoni, ca. 1578-1630

Anthony Van Dyck, 1599-1641

Gerrit van Honthorst, 1592-1656

Aniello Falcone, 1607-1656

Salomon de Bray, 1597-1664

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 1606-1669

Jan Cossiers, 1600-1671

Jan Lievens, 1607-1674

Jacob Jordaens, 1593-1678

Karel Dujardin, 1622-1678

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1598-1680

Sir Peter Lely, 1618-1680

Domenico Maria Canuti, 1626-1684

Caspar Netscher, 1635/6-1684

Antoine Watteau, 1684-1721

Pier Leone Ghezzi, 1674-1755

Carle Vanloo, 1705-1765

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1696-1770

Francois Hubert Drouais, 1727-1775

Lorenzo Tiepolo, 1736-1776

Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788

Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734-1797

Gaetano Gandolfi, 1734-1802

Joseph Ducreux, 1735-1802

Jens Juel, 1745-1802

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1725-1805

Henry Edridge, 1769-1821

Johann Heinrich Fuseli, 1741-1825

Louise-Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, 1755-1842

Louis Boilly, 1761-1845

Theodore Chasseriau, 1819-1856

Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1780-1867

Edgar Degas, 1834-1917

Egon Schiele, 1890-1918

John Singer Sargent, 1856-1925

Lovis Corinth, 1858-1925

Juan Gris, 1887-1927

Henri Matisse, 1869-1954

Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973

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