Underdrawings in Renaissance Paintings marks the fourth entry in the National Gallery’s popular Art in the Making series. A joint project of the National Gallery’s Scientific, Conservation, and Curatorial departments, the exhibitio n and accompanying publication represent more than a decade of systematic scientific analysis at the National Gallery, one of few museums to have examined its collection in depth. The Herculean work of Research Associate Rachel Billinge, the infrared reflectogram ‘mosaics’ that illustrate this volume have been assembled from digital images using computer programs developed by the National Gallery specifically for this purpose.
David Bromford’s excellent introductory essay begins with a brief history of the scientific study of paintings at the National Gallery. In a text that parallels the exhibition installation, Bomford defines underdrawings as the preparatory drawings that lie beneath the finished surfaces of paintings, and describes the scientific techniques used to identify and analyze them. Rarely visible through thin paint layers, underdrawings can be revealed and documented using infrared photography, a moderately sensitive method first used as an analytical tool in the 1930s, and by infrared reflectography, a highly sensitive technique first developed by the Dutch physicist J.R.J. van Asperen de Boer in 1960. Each of these scientific methods is clearly explained in terms that are easily accessible to the non-specialist. Bomford concludes his introduction by noting the various techniques and media used by artists for the execution of underdrawings. These include wet brush (identifiable by smooth, continuous lines), pen or quill drawings (evidenced by split lines), dry-line drawings (executed in charcoal or colored chalk) and transferred designs (using a grid system, incised tracing, or pouncing).
Following Bomford’s concise introduction to the subject, an essay by scientists Jo Kirby, Ashok Roy, and Marika Spring discusses in greater detail the materials and methods used by artists for the execution or transfer of underdrawings on the prepared surfaces of panels or canvases. By including several examples of microscopic and cross-sectional sampling analyses, the authors illustrate the difficulty of identifying underdrawing media simply through visual analysis, and caution that at all times, comparisons must continue to be made with the painted surface. Although clearly written, the rather technical tone of this essay may make it less appealing to the uninitiated general reader.
In an essay dedicated to the ‘Artists of the North,’ curators Lorne Campbell and Susan Foister present an excellent summary of the purpose, style, and technique of drawings and underdrawings in the work of Jan van Eyck, Albrecht Dürer, Jan Gossaert, Hieronymus Bosch, and others. The authors are careful to identify underdrawings not as preliminary sketches or first ideas, but rather as the final step in a series of preparatory stages taken by the artist prior to applying paint to the surface of a panel or canvas. Particular attention is given to the role of drawings and underdrawings in the workshops of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century masters, in which replicas were often produced, and the execution or transfer of designs was frequently relegated to apprentices or journeymen.
Finally, an essay by restorer Jill Dunkerton and curator Carol Plazzota addresses the importance of drawing and design in the production of Italian Renaissance paintings. The authors discuss the Italian concept of disegno as the synthesis of idea and execution, and identify how, through the understanding of this concept, drawings and underdrawings associated with Italian paintings differ from those of Northern artists. The importance of model books, collected drawings, and pattern cartoons in the production of Italian paintings is discussed at length. Several examples of traced, squared, or pounced underdrawings in the work of Pisanello, Vincenzo Foppa, Perugino, Lorenzo Lotto, and others clearly illustrate this point.
A catalogue of sixteen richly illustrated entries follows the four introductory essays. Paintings are arranged in chronological order, from Stephan Lochner’s Saints Matthew, Catherine of Alexandria, and John the Evangelist (c.1450) to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Adoration of the Kings (1564). Notable highlights include: Carlo Crivelli’s Dead Christ Supported by Angels (c.1470-75), underdrawn throughout in rapid, light strokes, with a brush and dilute ink; the Master of the View of St. Gudula’s Portrait of a Young Man (c.1480-85), whose extensive and detailed underdrawing is executed in bold, rapid strokes with a liquid medium; Raphael’s Procession to Calvary (c.1504), the infrared reflectogram of which shows evidence of transfer from a pricked cartoon, pounced with charcoal; and Marinus van Reymerswale’s Two Tax Gatherers (c.1540), whose detailed and carefully traced underdrawing follows precisely the painted surface of Reymerswale’s panel in the Louvre. The greater number of Netherlandish and German paintings over Italian paintings reflects the fact that these areas of the National Gallery’s collection s have been more comprehensively studied to date.
Footnotes are detailed and extensive, although their placement at the end of the volume rather than within their respective essays is somewhat cumbersome. The comprehensive Bibliography is organized according to topic and individual artist, with entries arranged alphabetically, by author or editor, within. A single page Technical Appendix, containing concise summaries of the scientific techniques used, provides a ‘how-to’ guide for the specialist wishing to further explore or apply these methods in his or her own research (the Gallery’s custom-built VIPs-ip mosaic assembly software is available free via the Internet, with download information at www.vips.ecs.soton.ac.uk).
A valuable publication for the specialist and interested general reader alike, Art in the Making: Underdrawings in Renaissance Paintingsrepresents the state of the art in the technical and stylistic analysis of underdrawings, and provides for all readers an easily accessible point of entry to the fairly complex world of infrared reflectographic studies.
Nancy E. Zinn
The Walters Art Museum