Monday, May 25, 2015

Drawing in Silver and Gold at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns 

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

May 3 – July 26, 2015

Reviewed by Ed Voves

If you look at metalpoint drawing in the context of Western art,  you might easily see it as a fascinating sidebar to the famous rivalry of drawing vs. the primacy of painting.

For artists during the Renaissance, the technique of drawing with a silver-tipped stylus was an invaluable means of creative expression. Metalpoint drawing enabled artists like Hans Holbein the Elder to produce accurate and life-life sketches as preliminary drafts or as source records for their major works.

Hans Holbein the Elder, Portrait of a Woman, c.1508

Metalpoint's heyday did not outlive the Renaissance. The growing use of graphite pencils, pastel crayons and sophisticated methods for preserving charcoal sketches pushed metalpoint drawing toward the brink of oblivion by the 1700's.

The fascinating exhibit, Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., presents a badly needed reappraisal of metalpoint drawing. Silverpoint, the most prevalent form of metalpoint, did fall from favor due to the invention of the wood-encased lead (actually graphite) pencil. The story of metalpoint, however, is also one of revival.  Metalpoint came back into favor during the Victorian era and is in continued use today.

Amazingly, the National Gallery exhibition is the first full-scale museum display of metalpoint drawing ever mounted. Drawing in Silver and Gold was prepared with the collaboration of the British Museum, where it will later appear.

Preparation of Drawing in Silver and Gold began in 2008.  Hundreds of metalpoint works were examined in collections around the world. Every detail, artistic and technical, of metalpoint drawing was exhaustively studied. 

Special attention was given to the types of prepared paper used in metalpoint drawings. To ensure that a mark is produced by the artist's stylus, the paper must be coated with a solution containing abrasive substances - bone dust, white lead, and water mixed with glue was a popular recipe in Renaissance Italy.  The "grit" of the paper causes traces of the silver or gold-tipped stylus to remain behind and the nearly indelible line of metalpoint is produced. 

Metalpoint drawing actually dates to the the Middle Ages, as we will discuss. But when you  behold Leonardo's silverpoint Bust of A Warrior, it is easy to see why the exhibit's       curators make so much of this sensational work.

Bust of A Warrior is an indisputable masterpiece. It dates to the years 1475 to 1480, when the young Leonardo (1452-1519)  was still trying to make  a name for himself. The drawing of a scowling, armor-clad condottiere is believed to be a demonstration piece. 

Bust of A Warrior recalls the profile portraits, based on Roman coins and medallions, that were so popular during the early Renaissance. These profiles were already going out of style, replaced by three-quarters view portraits, pioneered by Antonello da Messina in Italy and Jan van Eyck in the Netherlands. But for Leonardo's purposes, the profile view enabled him to show the hard-edged precision of silverpoint in the sharply drawn, dragon-winged helmet and the lion's head mounted on the warrior's breastplate.

As amazing as these details of armor accoutrements may be, the more subtle shading-effects in Leonardo's portrait are truly great. Shades or shadows in metalpoint are not produced by rapidly-made strokes. Rather, closely-spaced parallel lines are drawn with varying degrees of pressure on the point of the stylus. A similarly exacting procedure of drawing cross-hatching lines is also used.

In the case of Bust of A Warrior, Leonardo created shadows from minute parallel lines with a degree of skill that is astonishing. Leonardo described his technique as taking "care that the shadows and lights be united, or lost in each other: without any hard strokes or lines."

Leonardo's advice was not easy to follow. This may partly account for the reason that metalpoint drawings in Renaissance Italy were never accepted as finished works of art. 

Raphael, The Heads of the Virgin and Child, c.1509

Even in the accomplished hand of Raphael, silverpoint remained a preparatory technique. To our eyes, the breathtakingly beautiful The Heads of the Virgin and Child, dating to around 1509, is a masterpiece. For Raphael, metalpoint drawing was "step one."

In Northern Europe, metalpoint drawing followed a similar course to that of Italy, developing further in the 1500's after interest in it had waned in Italy. 

Metalpoint evolved from the illustrations in Medieval manuscripts. It is believed that monk artists used the stylus to press the outline of the image onto vellum, which was painted over with color pigments to created the finished picture. At some point, it was discovered that treating or coating the pages would produce a texture that retained a visible line in the shape of metallic particles from the silver point of the stylus.

Very few early metalpoint sketches have survived but some of the drawings that were created to record the details of major paintings still exist. 

Circle of Rogier van der Weyden, Saint Mary Magdalene, c.1455/1465

On display in the National Gallery exhibition is Saint Mary Magdalene by Rogier van Weyden (1399-1464), created in silverpoint around 1455. It most likely was drawn by an assistant of the great Dutch painter, though there is a similar work on view definitely done by van der Weyden himself. This silverpoint is a direct copy of St. Mary Magdalene as she appears on the right-hand panel of the Braque Triptych, painted by van der Weyden in 1452 and now one of the great treasures of the Louvre.

Interestingly, this magnificent silverpoint depiction of St. Mary Magdalene was owned by Richard Payne Knight, a member of the 18th century Society of Dilettanti, and bequeathed to the British Museum in 1824. This shows how metalpoint drawings created by great artists came to be cherished in Northern Europe even when not originally intended as formal works of art. 

Albrecht Durer was one of the supreme metalpoint artists of all time. Durer's works, whether paintings, prints or silverpoint drawings like the wonderful A Dog Resting, were prized  during his lifetime and have never gone out of favor. 

Albrecht Dürer, A Dog Resting,1520

A Dog Resting is believed to have been looted  from the Albertina Museum in Vienna by by one of Napoleon's officials, Baron Dominque-Vivant Denon. It was later owned during the nineteenth century by William Thomas Beckford, whose vast wealth from sugar plantations in Jamaica enabled him to buy whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it. A Dog Resting was one of his more intelligent and tasteful purchases.

One of the early collectors of Durer's drawings during the 1500's was Arnold van Berestyn, from Haarlem in the Netherlands. Van Berestyn's portrait was painted by Hendrik Goltzius, who shortly thereafter took up silverpoint drawing. By this time, metalpoint drawing had all but died out in the Netherlands. In an excellent essay in the companion volume to Drawing in Silver and Gold, An Van Camp, curator of Dutch and Flemish prints and drawings at the British Museum, speculates that it "is not unthinkable that the German artist's work inspired the Dutchman..."

Hendrik Goltzius (1558-1617) is one of the protagonists of Drawing in Silver and Gold. His silverpoint drawings can stand up to Leonardo's and Durer's, which is high-praise indeed. With one hundred silverpoint drawings to his credit, Goltzius triggered the first revival of metalpoint drawing after its Renaissance golden age.  Among others, he influenced Jacques de Gheyn II and (indirectly) Rembrandt to become skillful practitioners of metalpoint. 

Hendrick Goltzius, Three Studies of a Man's Head,1587

Goltzius is a fascinating figure. His right hand was maimed in a fire during his childhood, but this did not stop him from becoming an artist and printmaker. His silverpoints are small in size and drawn on tafeletten, stiff paper boards, normally used as notebooks and commercial registers and intended to be wiped clean and reused. 

Hendrick Goltzius, Young Woman Reading a Book, 1591

While some of  the silverpoints created by Goltzius were clearly intended as studies, others like the portrait of his sister reading was a splendid portrait in its own right. 
Goltizius was an artist with a flair for capturing the character and individuality of the people he portrayed in his drawings.  His empathy and insight into humanity is notably apparent in the portrait of his thirteen-year old stepson, Jacob Matham. 

Hendrick Goltzius, Portrait of Jacob Matham, 1584

I was truly moved by Goltzius' works in the exhibition.  Goltzius painted works in a florid Mannerist style, very much of the late 1500's in spirit and giving little indication of the artistic glory soon to shower upon Holland. But his metalpoint drawings are a different story. When one views these remarkable portrait sketches, it is truly remarkable that Goltzius worked decades before Frans Hals, Rembrandt and the other great Dutch portrait painters. It is no exaggeration to claim a place for Goltzius among the trailblazers of the Dutch Golden Age.

The Dutch-inspired revival of metalpoint drawing, however, faded away by the beginning of the 1700's. During the eighteenth century, the term "artist's pencil" was used, for the most part, in reference to small brushes for watercolor painting or oil sketching. It most certainly did not refer to  the silverpoint stylus.

Shortly after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, interest revived in metalpoint drawing. Artists in Britain had been prevented from traveling to continental Europe for over two decades, except for a brief truce in 1802. After the battle of Waterloo, 1815, the glories of European art were once again available for study and reflection. This led to three major developments in the arts over the course of the nineteenth century: the fascination with Medieval culture in the form of the Gothic Revival, a rediscovery of the art of the early Renaissance in Italy and the "hands on" Arts and Crafts movement.

Awakened interest in metalpoint drawing was a factor in all three of these revivals. Major artists, beginning with William Dyce (1806-1864), went from studying Raphael's silverpoint drawing to creating their own.  

Over the course of the nineteenth century, a veritable "Who's Who" of British artists engaged in metalpoint drawing. William Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones and Alphonse Legros used this medium with distinction, chiefly in studies for major works. But Joseph Edward Southall, little remembered today, created a finished work in 1899, Head of a Girl, which is a metalpoint masterpiece.

Joseph Edward Southall, Head of a Girl, 1899

The nineteenth century metalpoint revival is brilliantly covered in the companion book to Drawing in Silver and Gold. Interest in metalpoint extended to the art loving public. The art supply company, Winsor and Newton, sold metalpoint kits aimed at the mass market from 1896 to 1910. The kits included a silverpoint stylus and a sketchbook with prepared pages. 

Why silverpoint should have appealed to the public at a time when its exacting standards were constantly being discussed in art journals is an interesting point. Perhaps the very difficulty of using metalpoint was a factor. With so much of art seeming to get easier - the Eastman Kodak "Brownie" camera was introduced in 1900 - perhaps people were looking for a creative challenge!

Around this time, experimentation was made with the goldpoint stylus. Oddly enough, silverpoint drawings turn a gold or russet brown color through oxidation. Goldpoint produces a delicate silvery color which never tarnishes. 

Metalpoint waxed and waned in popularity. But it never again faced extinction as it did during the 1700's. During the twentieth century,  Joseph Stella declared "my ardent wish to draw with all the precision possible, using the inflexible media of silverpoint and
goldpoint that reveal instantly the clearest graphic eloquence." 

Joseph Stella, Self-Portrait, c. 1925

Stella's powerful self-portrait did exactly that, exploring the full-range of metalpoint's toolkit just as Leonardo's Bust of a Warrior had done centuries before.

Metalpoint's utility has begun to explored in abstract works like Susan Schwalb's Strata #295, created in 1998. Works like this are quite a departure from those of Raphael and Goltzius but their effect on the arts is powerful and positive. Metalpoint is here to stay.

Susan Schwalb, Strata #295, 1998

There is no last word on the study of metalpoint. There is no concluding remark to make except to acknowledge the achievements of the National Gallery curators and their colleagues at the British Museum for Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns. Thanks to this magnificent exhibition, metalpoint drawing will henceforth be viewed as a major genre in the visual arts.

But we must acknowledge, as Stacey Sell of the National Gallery remarks, "Even to curators and conservators with years of exposure to this medium, these drawings seem almost miraculous."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the  National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Introductory Image:                                                                                                       Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519) Bust of a Warrior, c. 1475/1480, Silverpoint on cream prepared paper sheet: 28.7 × 21.1 cm (11 5/16 × 8 5/16 in.) mat: 55.9 × 40.6 cm (22 × 16 in.) On loan from The British Museum, London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Hans Holbein the Elder (German, 1465-1524) Portrait of a Woman, c.1508, Silverpoint, brush and black and brown ink, over charcoal and leadpoint, heightened with white on white prepared paper overall (Oval): 14.4 x 10.3 cm (5 11/16 x 4 1/16 in.) mat: 14 x 11 in. National Gallery of Art, Woodner Collection

Raphael (Italian, 1483-1520) The Heads of the Virgin and Child, c.1509, Silverpoint on pink prepared paper sheet: 14.2 × 11.1 cm (5 9/16 × 4 3/8 in.) mat: 55.9 × 40.6 cm (22 × 16 in.) On loan from The British Museum, London,© The Trustees of the British Museum

Circle of Rogier van der Weyden (Dutch, 1400-1464), Saint Mary Magdalene, c.1455/1465, Silverpoint on cream prepared paper sheet: 17.6 × 13 cm (6 15/16 × 5 1/8 in.) mat: 55.9 × 40.6 cm (22 × 16 in.) On loan from The British Museum, London, © The Trustees of the British Museum, Bequeathed by Richard Payne Knight, 1824

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528) A Dog Resting (recto), 1520, Silverpoint over traces of carbon black on pale pink prepared paper (recto) sheet: 12.8 × 18 cm (5 1/16 × 7 1/16 in.)  On loan from The British Museum, London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Hendrick Goltzius (Dutch, 1558-1617) Three Studies of a Man's Head (recto),1587, Silverpoint and possibly leadpoint on cream prepared vellum sheet: 14.8 × 13.2 cm (5 13/16 × 5 3/16 in.) mat: 55.9 × 40.6 cm (22 × 16 in.) On loan from The British Museum, London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Hendrick Goltzius (Dutch, 1558-1617) Young Woman Reading a Book (Portrait of Sophia Goltzius, Sister of the Artist?), Seen from Above, 1591, Metalpoint (probably silverpoint) on yellow prepared paper or parchment sheet: 10.3 × 8.6 cm (4 1/16 × 3 3/8 in.) Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett

Hendrick Goltzius (Dutch, 1558-1617) Portrait of Jacob Matham, the Artist's Stepson, Aged Thirteen, 1584, Metalpoint (probably silverpoint) on prepared vellum sheet: 9.6 × 6.1 cm (3 3/4 × 2 3/8 in.) framed: 38.5 × 31 cm (15 3/16 × 12 3/16 in.) Teylers Museum, Haarlem

Joseph Edward Southall (English, 1861-1944) Head of a Girl, 1899, Metalpoint (probably silverpoint) with scratching on white prepared paper sheet: 20 × 17.7 cm (7 7/8 × 6 15/16 in.) framed: 33.66 × 31.75 × 3.81 cm (13 1/4 × 12 1/2 × 1 1/2 in.) The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Purchased with funds from the Schweppe Art Acquisition Fun

Joseph Stella (American, 1877-1946), Self-Portrait, c. 1925, Metalpoint (probably silverpoint) and graphite on white prepared paper sheet: 76.7 × 56.4 cm (30 3/16 × 22 3/16 in.) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the Alice Newton Osborn Fund, the Katharine Levin Farrell Fund, the Margaretta S. Hinchman Fund, the Joseph E. Temple Fund, and with funds contributed by Marion Boulton Stroud and Jay R. Massey, 1988

Susan Schwalb (American, 1944 -) Strata #295, 1998, Silver, gold, copper, aluminum, brass, and platinumpoint on Video Media paper sheet: 60.96 × 60.96 cm (24 × 24 in.) framed: 76.2 × 76.2 cm (30 × 30 in.) Eric and Patricia Chafe Collection


  1. Great article. The Southall portrait is really stunning. I need to look him up ...

    The reason metalpoint technique is so exacting is that there's no such thing as erasing! Artists call it "unforgiving" for this reason, in contrast to a "forgiving"
    medium like charcoal, which can be wiped away. It makes the confident, flowing lines all the more impressive when you know the artist had to commit fully to every mark on the paper.

  2. Just came across your blog, thanks for mentioning my work. Very good piece on the show.

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