Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 6, 2016
Stacey Sell and Hugo Chapman, eds. Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns Exh. cat. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, in association with Princeton University Press, 2015. 320 pp.; 212 color ills. Cloth $49.95 (9780691166124)
Exhibition schedule: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, May 3–July 26, 2015; British Museum, September 10–December 6, 2015

Six chapters of this conveniently quarto-sized catalogue examine the history of metalpoint’s use by artists in Italy, the Low Countries, Germany and Switzerland, nineteenth-century Britain, and more recently by U.S. artists as well as Otto Dix, Avigdor Arikha, and Shirazeh Houshiary, whose Shroud (2000; unillustrated) is mistakenly placed in Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery rather than the Tate (237). For those of us who have asserted glibly that metalpoint went out with tempera painting, the sections dealing with the later history of the medium will be of particular interest—not least the detail, revealed in a letter by Edward Burne-Jones, that the Ashmolean Museum’s nude study of Antonia (1877) was drawn with a sixpence (commercially made silverpoint was not yet available in Britain) (193).

John Oliver Hand in his essay on Netherlandish silverpoint aptly lists its virtues: “clarity, subtlety, and permanence” (36). Hugo Chapman tells us that one sheet of the best paper cost as much as an agricultural worker’s week’s wages in the fifteenth-century—assuming it was available at all. Leadpoint did not require prepared paper (102). The Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns exhibition provided the funding for technical examination of the British Museum’s northern Renaissance metalpoint drawings, to complete the study previously confined to Italian Renaissance metalpoint drawings (Janet Ambers, Catherine Higgitt, and David Saunders, eds., Italian Renaissance Drawings: Technical Examination and Analysis, London: Archetype Publications, 2010), the preliminary results of which are published in the final chapter. These include identifying more silverpoint in the drawings of Hendrick Goltzius than had been supposed. In general, the verdict often remains “probably silverpoint.” The catalogue covers some of the same ground as the glorious exhibition organized by the Uffizi Gallery and the British Museum in 2010, Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings, which had full catalogue entries and essays on the history of the respective collections (Hugo Chapman and Marzia Faietti, Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings, exh. cat., Burlington, VT: Lund Humphries, 2010) (click here for review). Kimberly Schenck’s article on variations in the use of metalpoint, “Drawings Under Scrutiny: The Materials and Techniques of Metalpoint,” benefits from the recent book by Thea Burns, The Luminous Trace: Drawing and Writing in Metalpoint (London: Archetype Publications, 2012). The present catalogue’s bibliography includes no websites, not even a link to their own video on technique.

The affinity between metalpoint and printmaking is explored by An Van Camp in an essay that ranges from Goltzius to Rembrandt, though including also lesser lights. Often used for portraits, in which precision of touch and tone might be deemed essential, metalpoint was by no means limited to this, as witnessed by Jacques de Gheyn III’s silverpoint of Hampton Court in the distance with, in the foreground, a bizarre and curious conglomeration that consists of a pile of books surmounted by a small figure of leaping Time, clasping a scythe, routinely if somewhat mysteriously identified as a sundial. Goldpoint was evidently rarely used until recently, although Jan van Eyck’s intense study of Albergati (?), the drawing in Dresden (included as a figure only), combines silver and goldpoint, as does a work by Jacques de Gheyn II (?) (153). The next earliest drawing cited as including goldpoint is from the late nineteenth century. Leadpoint is fairly unusual, and mostly Italian. Goltzius liked to work on vellum, sometimes on ivory, or yellow, or cream prepared vellum. Like William Holman Hunt after him, Goltzius sometimes scratched through the ground to expose the white underlayer, and he sometimes added watercolor and white highlights to his metalpoint work, or even ink wash. Using not only blind stylus at a preliminary stage, but mixed media, rather than working in pure metalpoint, seems to have been quite common. Goltzius also liked to combine various metalpoints in the same drawing, and even graphite (163). One fifth of his “entire artistic production” was in silverpoint, nearly one hundred drawings (146).

Because no sharpening was needed, metalpoint was convenient for sketching out in the field. Hunt used metalpoint both for sketches and for extremely finished and elaborately worked drawings such as Pearl (1890), which is reproduced but was not lent by its private owner (195; it was sold at auction in 2012, at which time it was listed as requested for this exhibition).

Those who have admired Joseph Meder’s work as an art historian will be interested to be introduced briefly to his Büchlein vom Silbersteft (1909), which led eventually to Dix’s becoming interested in the medium while teaching at the Dresden Academy. Similarly, James Watrous’s scholarship stimulated John Wilde’s silverpoints. Cennino Cennini’s Libro dell’Arte, published in English in 1844, seems to have encouraged William Dyce to try silverpoint. Bruce Weber credits his own catalogue of 1985, The Fine Line: Drawing with Silver in America (West Palm Beach: Norton Gallery and School of Art), with having similarly sparked new interest in using the medium (234).

Although in general the illustrations are plentiful and of high quality, some of the figures in the catalogue are unduly reduced (e.g., Rosso Fiorentino’s design for an altarpiece from the British Museum, page 113, not a metalpoint drawing and included for its color), and there is no comprehensive list of figures. Alphonse Legros’s sympathetic study after Raphael (plates 55, 82), which appears in detail on page xiv, well removed from its caption, may confuse the uninitiated. The absence of location and dimensions in the captions is lamentable, although for plates that information is provided in the checklist at the back (twenty-eight works were shown in only one location; half of the works came from the British Museum). The captions for figures include location but not dimensions. The barebones index lists only artists and their works. The intriguing silverpoint attributed to Hans Baldung Grien in Basel of the head of the dead Erasmus (admittedly, not in the best condition) is described as “very likely the earliest known deathbed portrait north of the Alps” (72), but not reproduced. Despite the title, only one Jasper Johns work is shown, and the strain is palpable in making him sound important to the history of metalpoint. The work of Bruce Nauman, a response we are told to Joseph Stella’s silverpoint and graphite drawing of Marcel Duchamp, closes out Weber’s essay, “Modern and Contemporary Drawing in Metalpoint.”

The Drawing in Silver and Gold catalogue brings together a wide variety of artists made cohesive by their dedication to an exacting drawing medium. As Hand observes, the way Gerard David used metalpoint may be very like how Hans Holbein, Goltzius, or even Rembrandt used it: “quick but durable sketches of expressions, gestures, and physiognomies” (35). On the other hand, Lucas van Leyden signed a strange metalpoint of two male nudes holding staff-like objects (perhaps an oar or hoe), seated back to back on a sphere, perhaps in clouds, with hair waving in the wind, a lion and a bit of grapevine—a finished drawing of innovative iconography. Metalpoint was apt for any small-scale linear drawing, as long as maximal tonal contrast between line and ground was not important and the line needed not be in itself a bold, much inflected, or obtrusive mark. Apart from twentieth-century and contemporary work (the largest of which mentioned is by Linda Hutchins, drawn on walls wearing ten thimbles, or with spoons, not illustrated), the biggest sheet in the exhibition did not much exceed the size of the exhibition catalogue itself (none of the reproductions is claimed to represent the actual size of the original, though some are at least very close). The fairly large leadpoint drawings by Jacopo Bellini in his renowned sketchbooks were not included.

By studying efforts in a particular medium over the course of over six centuries in several countries, it has been possible to frame the history of art in terms of retrospection as well as innovation. Such connections are not always easily discerned: Carol Prusa began using silverpoint, we are told, in response to having studied in Florence Leonardo da Vinci’s preparatory drawing for the Adoration of the Magi (1481), a work one hardly thinks of as a display of metalpoint virtuosity, although preliminary perspective lines were done in that medium.

Nothing was borrowed from the Uffizi, and so Albrecht Dürer’s silverpoint of the black servant Katharina, described as “one of Dürer’s most magnificent portraits in any technique” (71), is reproduced as a figure only. Rather than claiming to be the comprehensive treatment of the history of metalpoint, these assembled essays help us to think of metalpoint not as an abandoned medium, but as one that displays remarkably durable strands of continuity. As Stacey Sell argues in her introduction, the history of metalpoint shows us how studying the history of art can open new horizons for contemporary artists, who find the appeal of “an exceptionally fine, unbroken line” and how studying a medium across stylistic boundaries, “uniting draftsmen across time” (5), can help us to recognize the versatility of a medium that might have been thought, repeatedly, to be obsolete.

Patricia Emison
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of New Hampshire