Beyond Drawing Basics: Evidence Interpretation in Master Landscape Drawings

Beyond Drawing Basics: Evidence Interpretation in Master Landscape Drawings

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Many great landscape drawings were created as preparatory studies, educational exercises, or informational journals and not as finished works of art. We can now study those freely made graphic images for evidence of the drawing essentials, ideas, and procedures that these artists developed.

by M. Stephen Doherty

Pastoral Scene With Classical Figures
by Claude Gellée (called Claude Lorrain), ca. Collection The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.
View of the Acqua Acetosa
by Claude Gellée (called Claude Lorrain), ca. 1645, pen and brown ink and brush with brown and gray wash over graphite on cream laid paper,
10 3/16 x 15 15/16. Collection The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

The history of art is often pieced together from scraps of evidence and pure speculation, and drawings are often the most valuable resources in conducting that kind of investigation. When someone discovers dozens of individual studies for a large fresco, for example, they understand all the various compositional ideas the artist considered before executing the finished decoration. And when a carefully detailed graphite study is linked to a painting of two warring gods, scholars can see how the artist turned studio drawings of hired models into an emotionally charged painting of supreme conflict.

Some Old Master landscape drawings were polished up by the artists so they could be used as part of a proposal to a prospective painting client, duplicated to satisfy several collectors who each wanted the same drawing, or presented as a gift to a patron who supported the artist’s career. But even these refined drawings failed to impress their owners as great works of art, as evidenced by the fact that the collectors seldom listed them in the inventories of their holdings. Even when auction houses offered the landscape drawings for sale, they tended to group them together to be sold as a lot rather than as individual treasures.

To those of us who are trying to improve our abilities as artists, there is much to learn both from the cast-off studies and the polished drawings. And landscape drawings are often among the most interesting scraps of evidence about the thoughts and methods of the Old Masters we admire. They are like the first draft of a novel, the unedited version of a public speech, or the unaltered score of a symphony. They provide valuable insight that helps us expand our own abilities to create art.

Drawing magazine selected a group of master drawings to review, with each offering an opportunity to explore some important aspect of the artist’s powers. All are reproduced in books that are still in print, and several are currently on view at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC.

Agostino Carracci (1557–1602): Learning From Nature
Agostino Carracci, along with an older brother and a cousin, had a strong influence on the development of the Baroque style of late 16th- and early 17th-century art in Italy because of the pictures they executed and, perhaps more crucially, because of the many students they trained. Among the most important lessons that Carracci offered young artists was the value of drawing directly from nature, as demonstrated by this rapidly executed, expressive study of interlocking trees. One can almost feel the wind billowing through the leaves that are drawn with a series of curled lines stretched in a horizontal pattern. And the tree branches are given dimension with lines that follow the natural curve of their form, thus accentuating the play of light and shadow.

ca. 1590, brown ink,
7 7/16 x 5 11/16.
Private collection.

Like many artists who excelled at drawing with a quill pen, Carracci spent a number of years developing his skills as a printmaker. The strength and control required for manipulating an etching needle or an engraving burin served artists well when they held a carved feather in their hands and applied varying amounts of pressure to either increase or decrease the width of an inked line. One imagines that as Carracci sat under a tree and drew without any preliminary graphite or charcoal lines, he guided his pen effortlessly around the shape of the leaves and branches, increasing the pressure as the shadows deepened and reducing it as the sunlight touched the left side of a trunk or leaf.

Most of the drawings made in this period emphasized line over tone, so ink was a very appropriate medium with which to make drawings. The images would have more strength and permanence in ink than if they were done in charcoal or colored chalk, especially if the drawings were made in sketchbooks whose pages would rub against each other as the artist carried them from place to place.

Because artists often kept their sketchbooks with them at all times, frequently stopping to make notations about a landscape, figure, or building that caught their attention, the bindings that held the books together often broke apart and had to be repaired with new strips of paper or leather. Sometimes the artists would bind together different sets of drawings rather than simply repair a sketchbook with its original pages. They might want to have all their landscape drawings together in one folio for easier reference; or they might want to eliminate pages that were soiled or unused when they glued the sheets together in a new book.

Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788): Liberating Drawing From Painting
With the work of most great masters, there is a direct correspondence between the subject and style of their drawings and paintings. Portrait painters such as John Singer Sargent made hundreds of charcoal portrait drawings; masters of large figurative compositions, such as Tiepolo, created dozens of ink drawings of invented people twisting in space; and painters of pastoral landscape scenes, such as Claude Lorrain, drew landscapes with the same compositional arrangements as in his serene, late-afternoon painted vistas.

Wooded Landscape With a Stream
ca. mid-1780s, black and white
chalk on gray-blue paper.
Private collection.

It is remarkable, therefore, that an artist like Thomas Gainsborough, who was admired for his portraits of English lords and ladies, would consider the act of drawing to be an opportunity to explore new materials, concepts, and styles of expression. This example of his experimental chalk drawings is currently on view at the National Gallery of Art in a show titled “Private Treasures: Four Centuries of European Master Drawings.” In the catalogue description of the work, Jennifer Tonkovich, the associate curator of drawing and prints at The Morgan Library Museum, where the show originated in New York City, comments that “although [Gainsborough] occasionally made studies related to portraits, landscapes predominate among the artist’s drawings, and he produced hundreds of sketches throughout his career. Working on paper allowed him the freedom to experiment with unconventional combinations of media and to study and record nature for his own personal pleasure, unrelated to formal commissions.”

Tonkovich goes on to compare this Gainsborough drawing with “the ideal tradition of Claude Lorrain. He eschews the conventional devices of framing the scene with trees and establishing a central focus; he also shows no trace of human or animal presence save for what may be a lone sheep—drawn with utmost brevity—atop the hill at left. Gainsborough executed the sheet with a layer of rhythmic, diagonal chalk strokes that emphasize the thrust of the landscape. The softened, rounded features of the rocks and trees, and the feathery surface pattern, evoke a lush, dramatic setting, presaging the landscapes of the British romantic school.”

One can easily understand how an artist who devoted most of his artistic skills to serving English society would take pleasure in creating experimental drawings. In all likelihood, he would have lost his sanity if he hadn’t found some relief from flattering dukes and dowagers.

Thomas Cole (1801–1848): Adding Emotion to Observations
Although Thomas Cole is well respected as one of the founders of the Hudson River School—the first native school of art in America—his paintings often seem excessively sentimental, moralistic, and overstated. For example, one cycle of paintings, The Voyage of Life, illustrates the life of a man from infancy to old age as he travels on a river that changes from being a calm stream to a calamitous waterfall and, finally, a dark ocean guarded by angels. Cole uses a series of obvious devices—a floating cradle, a fork in the river, a dark storm—to preach about the consequences of age, bad judgment, and lack of virtue.

A View of the Mountain
Pass Called the Notch
in the White Mountains

1839, oil, 40 3/16 x 61 5/16.
Collection National Gallery
of Art, Washington, DC.

In contrast to his paintings, Cole’s landscape drawings seem like chaste studies of nature. The linear graphite examinations show little evidence of invention or exaggeration, suggesting that one could probably still determine exactly where he was standing when he drew the landscape near his studio along the western shore of the Hudson River, in Catskill, New York. It’s only when one compares a drawing to the oil painting on which it is based that one can understand how Cole imposed his beliefs—or the belief system of a young nation trying to distinguish itself.

The subject of this drawing, Crawford’s Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, was the site of a tragic avalanche that took the lives of Samuel Willey, his wife, their five children, and two hired men. Willey had constructed a shelter away from the base of the mountain where he thought he and his family would be safe if such an event occurred, but on August 28, 1826, the deflected boulders crushed the shelter and spared the house. Cole visited the site two years after the event and returned in 1839 to make a drawing of the exact appearance of the mountain, valley, and home.

When Cole returned to his studio to create a painting based on the drawing, he began shifting the composition, adding figures, and inventing weather conditions. A man now rides past a symbolic dead tree on a horse that senses danger, a father and his children come out from the house to greet the rider, and rain clouds burst on the top of the mountain and instigate the tragic events.

It has been postulated that Cole’s additions and alternations were suggested, in part, by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fictionalized account of the Willey disaster. Hawthorne’s short story, The Ambitious Guest, turns the natural disaster into a day of reckoning for Willey and his daughters, who hoped their visitor could help them achieve their selfish ambitions. In her book The Anatomy of Nature: Geology American Landscape Painting, 1825–1875 (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey), Rebecca Bedell writes that “since Cole avidly sought out literary associations with the sites he painted, it seems likely that he would have known Hawthorne’s tale.” Bedell goes on to reference another cycle of paintings by Cole, The Course of Empire, which illustrates that “it is pride and ambition (among other sins) that bring about the fall of the empire. Hawthorne’s story points to the same lesson, the idea that pride and ambition precede a fall.”

Making a comparison between Cole’s preliminary drawing and the resulting painting is like studying the development of a magazine cover illustration by J.C. Leyendecker or Norman Rockwell. The raw material inherent in a drawing of live models is changed to tell a story that can be understood quickly. Gestures, facial expressions, and body positions are adjusted to emphasize the most revealing episode in the story and to heighten the emotional impact of the underlying message. In Cole’s case, human gestures, natural forms, and weather conditions are the elements used to increase that sense of drama.

William Stanley Haseltine (1835–1900): Focusing on Significant Saleable Views
Although all artists prefer to draw and paint subjects that interest them, those who aim to sell landscape pictures must deal with several common expectations among prospective buyers. One is that collectors prefer landscapes with historic, geological, environmental, or personal significance; and the other is that wealthy individuals tend to gravitate to the same exclusive locations. That was true in the 19th century when Thomas Moran and James Abbott McNeill Whistler sold hundreds of prints, drawings, and paintings of everyone’s favorite city, Venice, Italy; and it is true today when artists sell pictures of wealthy communities such as Palm Beach, Santa Fe, and Carmel by the Sea. The back streets of Podunk may fascinate painters, but it is unlikely that collectors will share their enthusiasm for the gritty appearance of an insignificant town.

Rocks at Nahant
ca. 1864, graphite and watercolor,
14¼ x 20. Collection Museum of Fine
Arts, Boston, Boston, Massachusetts.

It was no accident that Haseltine created dozens of detailed drawings of rock formations along the shoreline at Nahant, Massachusetts, the fashionable summer watering hole for wealthy Bostonians that had geological significance. In all likelihood, Haseltine discovered the shoreline while attending Harvard University, where he was a member of the Harvard Natural History Society. Louis Agassiz was a lecturer at the college who frequently took his natural-history students to Nahant to show them ice-sheared, polished rocks of volcanic origin that were thought to be among the oldest on earth.

That particular coastline proved to be a perfect subject for Haseltine’s precise drawings and oil paintings because he believed “everything in nature is worth painting, provided one has discovered the meaning of it. The picture will then tell its own story.” So many wealthy art collectors were interested in the story told in Haseltine’s pictures of Nahant that he could barely keep up with the demand for them.

Haseltine used drawing materials and techniques commonly employed by artists for hundreds of years. He worked on blue- or gray-toned paper with dark graphite or charcoal, and then he added highlights with white chalk. He could effectively develop three separate values with only two drawing materials. Although Haseltine’s drawings are generally well preserved, many other such drawings on colored paper have deteriorated. Quite often these papers were dyed with fugitive colors that faded or changed over time, or the ink used for the drawing proved to be unstable and the images lost contrast. The best preserved of these drawings tend to be ones in which the artist first toned the surface with a professional grade of watercolor, casein, or gouache, then applied the dark and light marks over those midtone colors. The most popular colors were blue, tan, gray, and green. Today there are a number of archival, toned papers available for artists to use for landscape drawing, some bound together in sketchbooks that offer sheets of three or four different color options. For example, Fabriano makes both the Fabriano Quadrato Artist’s Journal and the Artist’s Journal pads with as many as 12 different colored laid papers that are ideal for tonal landscape drawing; and Legion makes its versatile Stonehenge paper in several subtle shades that are perfect for tonal drawing in graphite, charcoal, or chalk.

Daniel Garber (1880–1958): Interpreting Photographs
Indiana-born artist Daniel Garber completed his education at the Cincinnati Art Academy and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia, at a pivotal time in the history of American art. Painters were being strongly influenced by the French Impressionists they met while studying in Europe or whose pictures were acquired by American collectors; and they were fascinated with the possibilities that photography offered them.

Garber responded to both of these forces, and he developed an interesting method of using his photographs as the source of highly textured tonal drawings that conformed to the Impressionist aesthetic. First, he tended to work on laid paper that was relatively thin, heavily sized, and had a distinctive linear weave. A laid paper such as Fabriano Roma is much less likely to mimic the continuous tones in a photograph than would a soft, mould-made paper such as Legion Stonehenge or Rives BFK. A sheet of laid paper—which is more often associated with writing stationery—is best suited to drawings with subtle tones rather than those that require deep, heavily worked dark passages.

The artist also handled his drawing tool in such a way that it left patches of tones rather than solid, hard-edged shapes. Garber may have been looking at a photograph to understand the spatial relationships in the scene, but he interpreted those relationships as he developed his drawing. The same might be said of the methods Monet used to capture the appearance of a garden or a haystack. The Frenchman applied separate pieces of paint that coalesced when seen from a distance.

This particular drawing of a quarry was the source for one of Garber’s oil paintings, and the subject appears again in several of his etchings. The quarry provided him with an opportunity to study the effects of light on a deep crevasse, a heaving mountain, and a body of reflective water. Interestingly, other artists have been attracted to quarries as subjects of their paintings, presumably because the locations offered a variety of landscape forms in one small area, and because they afforded a degree of privacy one could not find along an ocean beach or public lake.

Garber demonstrated an effective way of bringing imagination, style, and personal content to an otherwise mechanical record of a landscape; and he showed how drawings can become an integral part of that interpretive process of realizing paintings and prints.

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