Allan Ramsay, Head of Margaret Lindsay, the Artist’s Second Wife, Looking Down (ca. 1776), red chalk with white heightening on gray paper, 37 cm. x 27.9 cm.; courtesy The National Gallery of Scotland
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While I was leafing through the catalogue for The Draftsman’s Art: Master Drawings from the National Gallery of Scotland, a phrase leaped out at me. In the introduction, Michael Clarke, Keeper of the National Gallery of Scotland, writes of the “intimacy of intuition and appreciation between creator and viewer.” Although Clarke was specifically describing how we experience Old Master drawings, his statement is applicable to all forms and epochs of art (provided, of course, that we’re speaking of good art: a necessary hedge in this age of slippery standards). That a museum curator should underline and, implicitly, honor the significance of aesthetics may not seem like a big deal–it goes with the job, right? Yet the obviousness of Clarke’s statement shouldn’t shield us from its truth or rarity. In an age when art is too often an adjunct of fashion requiring only a token nod of approval, the reaffirmation of intimacy, intuition, and appreciation deserves not only our attention, but also a veritable round of applause.
If Clarke deserves a hand, then The Draftsman’s Art demands a standing ovation. With the intention of putting the museum’s best foot forward, Clarke has culled eighty drawings from its collection and many of them are, to put it mildly, choice. Among its stellar attractions are pieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Peter Paul Rubens, François Boucher, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Joseph Mallord William Turner, William Blake, and Georges Seurat. There are also exquisite works by figures of more specialty interest—Parmigianino, Agostino Carracci, Jacob Jordaens, Roelant Savory, and Hubert Robert to name just a few. It should, as a cautionary measure, be noted that the Leonardo, a double-sided study of dog paws, as well as the two drawings by Rubens–one a pastiche by a twenty-something master-in-training, the other a copy after Raphael by an unknown hand and “customized” by the artist–are more fascinating as curios than as art. Similarly, many of the pieces by English and Scottish artists are unlikely to send us scurrying to see more of their work.
Having made those qualifications, let me add that the aforementioned Rubens pastiche is still pretty astonishing and two of the finest pieces in The Draftsman’s Art do the home team proud. David Paton’s Portrait of Two Gentlemen (c. 1660–65) is the earliest example of Scottish drawing in the National Gallery’s collection and a work of stringent intricacy. Not much bigger than an index card, the piece depicts two men, one looking at us with a mild curiosity, the other with something approaching contempt. As distancing as their attitudes may be, the fineness of Paton’s draftsmanship pulls us in. The manner in which the artist delineates the hair of his subjects–two ample masses of form that buzz with electricity–is arresting in its minutely tuned particularity. It was with this in mind that the Frick placed Portrait of Two Gentlemen within arm’s reach of a rack of magnifying glasses, an aid that does much to clarify Paton’s technical skills.
The other significant Scotsman is Allan Ramsay whose Head of Margaret Lindsay, the Artist’s Second Wife, Looking Down (1770) is nothing short of a masterwork, albeit one of unassuming proportions. Suffused with an unmistakable and embracing tenderness, the work isn’t so much a portrait as it is a reverie. With her downcast gaze and aquiline nose, Margaret Lindsay is seen in an unguarded moment—involved, perhaps, in a duty so routine as to allow for a drift in concentration. Rendered delicately with a grainy red chalk, Head of Margaret Lindsay has the uncanny quality of having been gathered, as it were, from out of the air. Ramsay’s isn’t a drawing we admire; it’s a drawing we fall in love with.
One could go on at length detailing the exhibition’s other treasures. My favorites include the unnerving eroticism of Parmigianino’s The Virgin and Child (undated), the hellish ambiance of Pietro Testa’s scrabbled Narcissus at the Pool (undated), and the languid profile of Portrait of Mlle Albertina Hayard (1812), a portrait that confirms that Ingres’s line is among the glories of art. My lone quibble is that the works seen in the show’s final gallery are workmanlike. Even so, this letdown in splendor is offset by the inclusion of John Sell Cotman’s Hell Cauldron (1805), a watercolor landscape whose crisp stylings are somehow both appropriate and antithetical to its medium. The Draftsman’s Art puts me in mind of the art critics’ old lament that writing about group shows amounts to little more than making up a laundry list. Given the riches currently on display at the Frick, one comes to realize that there are some laundry lists which should be enumerated, not with grumbling, but with gratitude.
© 2001 Mario Naves
A version of this article was originally published in the February 2001 edition of The New Criterion.