Two 15th Century Drawings

August 29th, 2009 § 4 comments

Two amazing 15th century drawings are Jan Van Eyck’s St. Barbara (Royal Museum, Antwerp) and Giovanni Bellini’s Lamentation (Uffizi, Florence). Both are on gesso covered panels and painted with fine, fine brushes. The Bellini is a large work and measures 74 x 118 cm., and the Van Eyck small at 31 x 18 cm.  They are often referred to as grisaille paintings. To me they are much more drawings than paintings, and if I were a drawings curator at the Uffizi or in Antwerp, I’d surely agitate to have them in my department. The limiting of drawings to paper or animal skin supports seems too arbitrary.

Jan Van Eyck | St. Barbara | 1437 | Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten | Antwerp

Jan Van Eyck | St. Barbara | 1437 | Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten | Antwerp

Giovanni Bellini | Lamentation | c. 1490 | Galleria degli Uffizi | Florence

Giovanni Bellini | Lamentation | Tempera on Panel | 74 x 118 cm. | c. 1490 | Galleria degli Uffizi | Florence

Bellini | Lamentation | Detail

Bellini | Lamentation | Detail

Scholars are undecided as to whether these are finished or unfinished works. To modern eyes, it would seem insane to do such detailed works, only to be covered with paint. (The colored paint in the sky of the Van Eyck work was added later, not by Van Eyck.) Fifteenth century painters were meticulous in their preparation, but to this extent?

The possibilities:

– Unfinished, meant to be completed with paint

– Meant to be exactly as they are

– Meant to be used as teaching/workshop models

Or, maybe we’re dealing with instances of “quit while you’re ahead.”

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§ 4 Responses to Two 15th Century Drawings"

  • r lockwood says:

    My guess is, this was the underpainting for the next layers of tempera and/or transparent glazing. It might seem insane to painters even a half-century later let alone modern painters, to put this much detail into the prep, but that’s partly the point: van Eyck is said never to have been forgeried, none would go to the trouble. Why did he? He had very sophisticated, demanding patrons enjoyed/endured by none since: the Counts John of Holland, and most importantly, the very fastidious and vain Duke Philip of Burgundy. Note the very substantial change in realism and detail between Hubert and Jan. Some of that may have been innate, and some may have been due to the very clear eye of his critic/patron. Had Jean, duc de Berry been Jan’s patron, perhaps there would have been even greater detail (cf the putative tie of Jan to the Limbourg brothers circle). Without such pressure, as the patrons became the less art-sophisticated bourgeousie, modern artists have become lazier, hence the dregs of Minimalism, etc. But never fear, just as with the PreRaphaelites,there is a resurgence of Classical Realism, and as the new artists rise above photorealism, the world of disguised symbolism and classical allusions will become more detailed, maybe even more so than Master Jan. IMO he would have killed for the 16MP digital cameras, Photoshop, color printers and transfer paper as an apprentice. Thank you for raising this very important question.

  • Lucy Vivante says:

    I’m sure you’re right about the demands of patrons. How amusing to think of Van Eyck with a digital camera, Photoshop, and the full range of modern tools. Thank *you* for the insightful comments.

  • Barrie Ripin says:

    Bravo of your selection of Bellini’s Lamentation as one of your two highlighted drawings. I just came back from seeing this breathtaking drawing up close at the Uffizi where, to my eye and tastes it stood out as the most memorable 2-D work in that museum. It seems to me that the marks Bellini made with such great skill, subtelty and care were meant to be seen as a drawing. His extrordinary ability to show depth of field, such as including outlines, in additon to the other usual techniques is extrordinary. I’d compare Bellini’s drawing to Bernini’s sculptures in many ways, including their ability to render ‘color,’ emotion, form and action. I am curious as to what the drawing medium used was – charcoal, lead, ?

  • Lucy Vivante says:

    Hi Barrie,

    You’re right about it being a breathtaking drawing. I’ve just looked at the Uffizi site and it is in tempera on panel. I’ll add that to the image.

    All best,
    Lucy