Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 16, 2018
Julian Brooks Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action Exh. cat. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2015. 264 pp.; 123 color ills.; 9 b/w ills. Hardcover $59.00 (9781606064382)
Andre del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action
J. Paul Getty Museum, June 23–September 13, 2015; Frick Collection in New York, October 6, 2015–January 10, 2016.
Installation view, Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action, the Frick Collection, October 7, 2015–January 10, 2016 (photograph © Michael Bodycomb; provided by the Frick Collection)

Andrea del Sarto manages to be both the painter’s painter and the draughtsman’s draughtsman. Best known for paintings, such as the so-called Madonna of the Harpies, that combine Leonardo da Vinci’s sense of the expressive possibilities of chiaroscuro with a strong feeling for the innate beauty of resonant chromatic harmony—a painterly achievement of extraordinary intuitive brilliance—he is also one of the greatest draughtsmen who ever lived. Francesco Bocchi, an underrated writer on art of the later sixteenth century, placed Andrea on equal footing with Michelangelo and Raphael in terms of his contribution to the perfection of painting, observing that while Michelangelo may have been unrivalled in disegno, he did not modify his drawing in the act of painting, but retained strong contours, while Andrea, understanding that lines are conceptual abstractions that do not exist in nature, was able to define form as the meeting of material surface and surrounding atmosphere. In what we might call this “applied” drawing, Bocchi insists, Andrea “surpassed Michelangelo by a long way.”

The exhibition Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action, is intended to illuminate the close relationship between Andrea’s drawing and painting. The show is the brainchild of Julian Brooks, associate curator of drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, who has given us several excellent exhibitions of drawings in the past, including Graceful and True: Drawing in Florence c. 1600 (Ashmolean Museum, 2003), and Taddeo and Federico Zuccaro: Artist-Brothers in Renaissance Rome (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007) that strike a perfect balance between popular appeal and scholarly substance, allowing the sheer beauty of the sheets to speak for itself, on the one hand, while also setting them in relation to one another in such a way as to explicate their historical interest as parts of the creative process. In this exhibition, relevant drawings are also shown together with a small but judiciously chosen group of paintings in order to make the relevant points about working method as effectively and economically as possible. The implications of the insights these juxtapositions afford are then further elaborated in the catalogue.

Almost all of the drawings on display are done in red chalk, a medium that had only recently begun to be used by Florentine artists when Andrea made himself its master. Perhaps the first thing one notices as one walks through the exhibition or peruses the catalogue is the extraordinary range of ways in which he handles the chalk, the sheer variety of “touch,” and thus of descriptive and expressive effect. It ranges from an incisive linearity that captures contours bristling with energy, as in the study of legs taken from the Laocoon (cat. 51), to detailed studies of faces or draperies that make the most of the medium’s ability to create subtle gradations of shading, such as in the exquisite head of a female saint (cat. 31), a study for the Luco Pietà. Two head studies in black chalk, of St. John the Baptist (cat. 49) and of a woman (cat. 6) that looks very much like the Virgin in the Madonna of the Harpies, are among the stars of the show.

Yet Andrea’s interest as a draughtsman also owes much to the ways he can combine the most varied handling within an individual drawing. An especially brilliant example is a sheet of studies of the Christ child for the Madonna of the Steps (cat. 44). The contours of the figure are energetically marked: the line is fiercely emphatic in some places, supple and delicate in others; the interior modeling, involving the description of the anatomy, is created by hatching just as incisive and assured, capable of suggesting shadow and reflected light at the same time. The result is a form grasped with almost photographic immediacy and completeness, both plausible as an observation from life, of the body and movements of a small child, and monumental in its articulation of three-dimensionality. Then, in a second sketch on the same sheet, Andrea concentrates on the description of the child’s belly and hips with strokes of great delicacy, attending to the play of light over the youthful flesh.

Andrea used chalk to create a flexible medium of expression—an entire language—the most enduring appeal of which will probably always be its ability to capture the look and feel of everyday life. Most winning of all, perhaps, are his drawings of children—in addition to the one already cited, the sequence of four studies of flying putti for the Panciatichi Assumption and Passerini Assumption (cat. 27, 28, 29, 38) and the exquisite face of a putto in three-quarter view (cat. 46) offer especially brilliant examples—but his images of old people, such as the head study for the St. Anne of the Medici Holy Family (cat. 54), as well as two beautiful heads of old men (cat. 34, 39) for figures of St. Joseph, are also unforgettable. His sensitivity to everyday life extended to the animal kingdom, as evidenced by the study of a grazing donkey (cat. 52) used for the background of two versions of the Sacrifice of Isaac.

Yet if Andrea’s best known and best loved drawings are life studies, his compositional sketches are equally impressive, even if in an entirely different way. Most artists of the time used pen and ink for this part of the preparatory process; Andrea preferred chalk. These sheets are just as brilliantly spontaneous, just as vivid, in their own way, as his life studies, but there is less concern with capturing appearances than in setting down, in a matter of seconds, a compositional idea in all the complexity of its interrelationships. As a result, their “touch” is more functional. Whereas the life studies are brilliant as exercises in perception, the compositional sketches, such as those for the Madonna of the Sack (cat. 15) or Madonna and Child with Saints (cat. 18), are equally impressive as documents of projective thought, as well as of the effective handling of the medium. For anyone who loves drawings, these sketches are just as powerfully indicative of the depth and acuity of Andrea’s intelligence.

The catalogue contains a very illuminating essay on the technical analysis of Andrea’s paintings by Yvonne Szafran and Sue Ann Chui, as well as one by Marcia Steele, which feature discussions of the evidence that Andrea made use of a “proportional compass’ or pantograph in transferring and rescaling designs. Marzia Faietti’s essay elegantly analyzes the way in which the diversity of touch within a single drawing contributes to the distinctive visual poetics of Andrea’s use of red chalk. Dominique Cordellier explores Andrea’s studies after the work of other artists, ancient and modern, and offers especially suggestive insight into his relation to Raphael and Bandinelli. There are short essays by Sanne Wellen on Vasari’s life of Andrea and by Alesandro Cecchi on the collecting of Andrea’s pictures by the Medici. The great strength of the book, however, is Brooks’s set of entries on three paintings and the drawings made for them, only two of which can be summarized here.

A close analysis of the Madonna of the Steps, now in the Prado, and the relevant drawings, indicate an especially complex creative process. Infrared reflectography (IRR) reveals many adjustments made in the course of the painting, especially in the first layers of underpainting. Andrea began with thin monochromatic washes that often revise or efface elements of the original design previously developed from the cartoon. The start of the painting process is thus essentially a continuation of the design process, an approach reminiscent of Leonardo’s in the Adoration of the Magi. A close comparison of the finished picture, the results of IRR analysis, and the surviving preparatory drawings (cat. 41–47), demonstrates that Andrea continued to make drawings on paper after transferring the cartoon to the panel and while proceeding with the underpainting, then making revisions to the picture on the basis of those drawings.

Andrea’s Sacrifice of Isaac exists in three versions, all dependent on the same cartoon. The first in the series is the large, unfinished panel in Cleveland, which was abandoned. Brooks shows that a smaller finished version in the Prado was used by Andrea to make adjustments in the composition that were then integrated into the large finished version now in Dresden, and that the Prado picture is not a studio replica of the Dresden picture as has sometimes been assumed. The Dresden panel is somewhat larger, but the size of the figures is the same, so that Andrea could have re-used the original cartoon. The result is that the figures are more distant from us and set in a more extensive space. Again, there is a suggestive similarity to Leonardo: in the second of the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks the figures are slightly but significantly larger in relation to the panel as a whole, indicating that Leonardo gave very careful consideration to the effect that such an adjustment would have.

Andrea himself would not have considered most of the drawings on display in this exhibition to be self-sufficient works of art; for him they were means to an end. We like to think that we approach them in a more sophisticated—and even more “objective”—way, fully appreciative of their independent beauty and value, but what such an exhibition and catalogue demonstrate is that understanding their function as parts of a working method enables us to appreciate them even more deeply

Robert Williams
Professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara