Drawing, the most intimate and immediate form of artistic creation, reached one of its pinnacles in the Netherlands during the 17th century—a period commonly known as the Golden Age.
While the story of early modern Dutch and Flemish art typically focuses on the paintings created during the time, this exhibition constructs an alternative narrative, casting drawings not in supporting roles but as the main characters. Featuring works by Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens, Hendrick Goltzius, Gerrit von Honthorst, Jacques de Gheyn II, and many others, the show traces the development of drawing in this period, exploring its many roles in artistic training, its preparatory function for works in other media, and its eventual emergence as a medium in its own right.
The 17th century was a period of profound change in the northern and southern Netherlands, marked by political regime change, religious schism, scientific developments, economic inequality, the persecution of women and different ethnic groups, and unremitting warfare. The reverberating effects of these changes had a large impact on art—what kind of art was in demand, who could and did produce art, and where and how art was made. Most artists in 17th-century Netherlands chose their career through family connections, working with a relative who worked in an artistic trade, although there are significant exceptions to this trajectory—Rubens was the son of a lawyer and Rembrandt the son of a miller.
To become a respected artist, one needed to study under a successful and skilled master in a workshop or art academy. Abraham Bloemaert, Rubens, and Rembrandt supervised the three most important workshops of the period, overseeing the development of dozens, if not hundreds, of students. In these workshops, learning to draw was an essential practice. Once an apprentice had mastered basic drawing skills by copying other works and drawing plaster casts or monuments, often traveling to Italy to do so, he progressed to creating drawings “from life.” The ability to accurately depict the human face and body was critical to an artist’s success and was especially important for those who aspired to create history paintings—the genre considered most prestigious because it relied on literary sources and often required portraying multiple figures in complex and dramatic scenes.
Rembrandt, more than other artists of this period, embraced life drawing. Most notably, he pioneered the collective study of the female nude—a commonplace practice today, but one that challenged the common bounds of decency in the 17th century. Studying the live figure increasingly became standard practice in the Netherlands during this period, but it was generally restricted to drawing male models, since prevailing cultural norms made it difficult for artists to find women to pose for them, especially in the nude. A rare study of a female nude featured in this exhibition is among the most celebrated of all Rembrandt’s drawings, an emotive and striking work that highlights the importance of learning to draw the female figure for artists of the period, a skill that was necessary to receive critical acclaim despite its inherent challenges.
Although drawings in the 17th century served many purposes—as reference materials, studies for future paintings, preparatory designs for prints—they also emerged as independent works of art, bought, commissioned, and collected by wealthy merchants. A favorite among both artists and collectors—and a new genre of drawing at this time—also emerged: the landscape. This development is attributable to many factors, one being the rise of an increasingly affluent merchant class living in a dense urban environment, who sought out works depicting the natural world and countryside.
Together these captivating examples of artistic skill and imagination—produced in a broad range of media, including chalk, ink, and watercolor—provide a new view of the creativity and working process of Netherlandish artists in the 17th century and reveal how drawings came to be celebrated works of art.
For more information, please see the museum’s website.
[Image caption: Peter Paul Rubens, A Sheet of Anatomical Studies, 1600–1610. Collection of The Art Institute, Chicago, Regenstein Acquisition Fund 2016.142.]
Text from The Art Institute, July 19, 2019.