Inspired by the 150-year anniversary of Gottfried Semper’s museum building on the Zwinger in Dresden, which was originally intended to house both drawings and paintings, this exhibition and catalogue of the same name brought together the early Netherlandish drawings and paintings in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. This enabled the curators to call attention to the close relationship between drawing and painting in artistic creation. Central to the project was the analysis of the two works by Jan van Eyck in Dresden: the preparatory drawing for his portrait of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati (?), lent by the Kunst-historisches Museum, Vienna, for this exhibition, and his portable triptych of the Virgin and Child with Saints and a Donor.
The catalogue is divided into four sections. The first, entitled ‘The Secret of Van Eyck,’ presents five essays that bring his working processes as both painter and draughtsman into clearer focus. Next is the catalogue of sixty-six drawings, divided into various thematic sections: works related to Burgundy or theBurgundian court; portrait drawings; representations of the Virgin Mary; ‘inverted worlds’; eighteen drawings by the Absalom Master (probably active in the Northern Netherlands between c. 1500 and c. 1525) and – the largest group – the functions of drawings. A number of the drawings and two miniatures attributed to Lieven van Lathem and the Master of the Dresden Prayerbook (from an unknown prayerbook of which two additional fragments survive in Berlin) are published here for the first time. The rich group of drawings dating from the early fifteenth century to the early sixteenth allows for a lively and well-illustrated overview of the changing techniques of drawing and the artists’ continual engagement and re-engagement with tradition.
The third section catalogues fourteen panel paintings, comprising altarpieces, devotional works and portraits. This last group, together with the essay on Van Eyck’s portraits of Cardinal Albergati and the catalogue entries on drawn portraits, tells us much about the practice of portraiture before it became common to paint the sitter directly from life. The final section on technical matters presents essays on paper and watermarks; on drawing materials; on underdrawing in early Netherlandish painting; on the reverses of several of the drawings in Dresden; and on workshop practice in the Rogier van der Weyden group.
The short essays on Van Eyck exemplify the way in which the catalogue as a whole engages closely with the physical object. The text on Jan van Eyck’s drawing of Cardinal Albergati by Ian Reiche, Silke Merchel, Thomas Ketelsen and Olaf Simon, presents evidence that the artist used three different types of metalpoint – two silverpoints and one goldpoint – and utilized them to draw the main features of the portrait; to produce the areas of hatched lines on either side of the face that bring it into three-dimensional relief and to write the inscriptions and strengthen features of the drawing, respectively. The authors also suggest that Van Eyck transferred the design of the drawing of Albergati to panel by applying straightforward geometrical principles and that the enlargement factor between the drawing and painting is 1: √2 (or 1:1.41). The greater width of the portrait in the painting, however, suggests that Van Eyck also worked freehand.
Uta Neidhardt’s and Christoph Schölzel’s essay on Van Eyck’s small triptych is a model analysis of a painting’s physical structure, technical make-up and content. Particularly useful is Christoph Schölzel’s diagrammatic reconstruction of the object, including its semi-integral frames. In the catalogue entry on the triptych, the authors affirm that the coats-of-arms on the frames are part of the original paint layer; they concur with Kaemmerer’s view that those on the left indicate a member of the Genoese Giustiniani family. The authors provide three different illustrations of these arms: a late nineteenth-century engraving after the triptych, a photomicrograph and a color reconstruction (p. 180, cat. no. 67).
The catalogue of drawings includes the early sixteenth-century (?) drawing in Leipzig (cat. no. 45, p. 138) that repeats the figures of the Virgin and Child in the triptych. Georg Zeman has argued that the drawing is a copy of a preparatory study for the triptych; as such, it belongs to a growing body of works that indicate the existence and transmission of Eyckian workshop patterns. The fact that infrared reflectography did not detect underdrawing for the architecture in the Dresden triptych, apart from a few construction lines, may also be related to Van Eyck’s use of pre-existing drawings, since the wings of the triptych contain the same architecture as Van Eyck’s later Van Maelbeke Virgin (c. 1440/41). The authors’ discovery of what appear to be Greek letters in the underdrawing of the armor of Saint Michael in the left wing of the triptych brings to mind the same type of the saint in the Hand G diptych of the Crucifixion and Last Judgement (The Metropolitan Museum, New York), where he carries a shield inscribed with Greek letters, likewise present in the underdrawing.
The similarity of the gesture of the praying donor in the left wing to that of Saint Francis in the Eyckian images of the Stigmatization (Turin) is also examined: according to the catalogue, the infrared reflectogram shows the donor’s hands in at least two positions: first, folded in prayer in the manner of Joos Vijd’s in the Ghent Altarpieceand, second, spread out with the palms facing each other, further apart than they appear in the final painting. For the authors, this second position suggests that the donor is based on Saint Francis, but the relationship between the two figures may be more complex or even reversed, since several aspects of the saint’s pose and dress (not least the shoes he famously wears at one stage of the underdrawing) suggest the figure of a kneeling donor.
Patrick Seurinck gives an account of the geometrical structure of the Dresden triptych in relation to composition and perspective. The ratio between the height and width of the triptych (including the wings) is 3:5, and Van Eyck established the width of the frames by dividing the entire triptych laterally into 52 equal units (26 for the central panel and 13 each for the wings). This systematic geometry works in terms of the triptych’s three-dimensional movement, as, for example, the width of the doubled frames when it is closed (6 units) exactly equals that of the cloth-of-honor behind the Virgin’s central throne. Such observations lead Seurinck to the conclusion that Van Eyck determined the perspective system in relation to the surface geometry of the object and that he aimed to achieve a harmonious integration of spatial depth and two-dimensional design.
Till-Holger Borchert proposes that the greater spatial coherence of the small-scale Dresden triptych (1437) in relation to the monumental Virgin of Canon van der Paele (1434-36) results in part from Van Eyck’s conception of the different modes of seeing required by works of different scales and formats. Finally, Christoph Schölzel provides a useful historical overview of the long quest by artists, restorers and scientists to discover the ‘ secret’ of Van Eyck’s binding medium. He suggests that future researchers will address the more complicated question of just how Van Eyck structured and manipulated the paint medium to such remarkable ends. Indeed, technical and material studies on panel paintings and drawings such as those in this volume are starting to clarify the manner in which the artist’s eye, hand and mind operated in combination with his materials and tools. To these, Van Eyck in particular paid extraordinary attention; and it is the great strength of this insightful and thorough book to have done the same.
Caldwell College, New Jersey