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More Old Master Drawings

There is nothing in all the world more beautiful or significant of the laws of the universe than the nude human body.
Robert Henri

Charles Louis Müller, A Standing Female Nude Leaning Against an Arch, ca.1864

Once again I decided to talk about some Old Master drawings and delve into the thinking behind how these drawings may have been created and the knowledge of the artist. In the above drawing by Müller, done in sanguine with white chalk highlights, the figure is drawn from a low view-point, with her body twisting toward her left side while resting on one knee. Note how Müller alternates the bent right leg with the bent left arm to create dynamic contrast. The right arm is also foreshortened and partially in shadow. Expressing power and femininity, this is a study that is Renaissance in spirit, even Mannerist, revealing the female nude as sculptural yet always graceful.

Anton Raphael Mengs, Seated male nude viewed from the back, 1755

One of several Academic nude studies by Mengs, this study demonstrates the high level of draftsmanship during the Rococo. A seated pose, Mengs incorporates a dynamic pose with detailed musculature and drapery with an intricate hatching pattern behind the figure. What is unusual about the pose is the subject turning away from the viewer, in that normally the figure's face would be in profile or looking downcast, but here it draws attention to the taut muscles of the forearm, midsection and thighs. Interestingly, this pose would work from several different angles. Poses such as this would have been held by the model for several hours, often repeated for up to a week. It is difficult to know with certainty where art models were found, but assuming by their physical fitness these were either men from the military or the lower classes who worked in heavy labor.

Anonymous, Balcony Design with Three Columns, 1700's

A drawing that appears to be a capriccio from the set of a stage or possibly an architectural idea, this low angle and heavily ornate Rococo design is eye-catching. Done with grey wash over ink. Note the way the light strikes across the columns from the left and the reflected light on the ceiling inside. Click here for a zoomable version.

Guercino, St Jerome, seated on the ground at the foot of a tree, turning the leaves of a large volume,1624

Guercino's facility with pen and ink wash is poetic, and takes on another life from his deeply visceral and sculptural paintings. Yet even here, with a simple indication of shadow and light, he still defines the form in a distinct setting that lets our eye fill in the blanks.

Jacob Jordaens, Study for female nude, 1601

One of my favourite studies, Jordaens was one of the right hand men of Rubens and a poet of the brush in his own right. Note the undulating forms of this figure with accurate attention to anatomy. Studies such as this are a reminder of how the camera has taken away our ability to see the form and remember it clearly...

Giovanni Alberti, Study of a Seated Male Nude, c. 1597

A lesser-known Mannerist painter, Giovanni Alberti here reveals a study of the position of an arm in this seated figure. Note how he tries to understand the balance and structure of the arm, but also how it sits into the joints. Alberti notes how the latimus dorsi and pectoralis muscles raise upward with the arm, and conversely when the supporting arm is bent the cubital fossa of the supinator and flexor muscles are compressed. Another dynamic pose from an era that pushed the limits of figure posing.

Pietro da Cortona, Study for Female figure

Cortona breathes life into the simplest drawing with pure poetry and expressiveness. The intent or emotion of the figure is always determined before the pose is created, and here Cortona indicates drapery with quick hatching, the essence of a quick sketch.

Louis Boullogne the Younger, Study for Angel

A master of black chalk and white on a dark background, Boullogne's figures have a grace and anatomical structure that is mesmerizing. This study for an angel is more whimsical than his typical nude studies, emphasizing the drapery over the anatomy for the first time. Judging by the lack of details in the limbs this most likely was drawn right from his imagination, but the drapery could have been arranged on a type of mannekin for reference. Note how Boullogne's arrangement is sculptural and dynamic, the movement seems to spiral upward off the page.

Luca Giordano, The Holy Trinity

This kind of sketch is worth its weight in gold for the information it provides us about how artists of the past thought. Again, this was drawn from imagination with a solid understanding of anatomy and drapery through years of experience. The composition has to balance two equally important figures without appearing overly symmetrical and uses the glow of a dove to represent the Holy Spirit. The arrangement is triangular without appearing contrived or obvious, and Giordano uses arm positioning to lead our eye around the figures to the Holy Spirit behind them. Note how even facial expression is indicated with the barest of line.


  1. Which painters made best drawing and sketches? Can you give some names? My fav is Prud'hon.

    1. I have many personal favourite draftsmen, and some of them I included here such as Louis Boullogne, who was phenomenal with chalk and white. Charles Le Brun was also another who had an amazing facility with drawing figures with intricate drapery, both male and female. Federico Barrocci did some awe-inspiring studies in both chalk and pastel. Annibale Carracci was the first to incorporate life drawing as a curriculum in an art school, and his life studies are full of life.

      I find it easier to group artists by nationality and period, with Italian, French and Dutch being the most important from the late 1400's right through to the 1800's. I will write more posts on this subject, especially after this summer when I will have studied these drawings in person in Europe.

    2. Please do, I'm looking forward to read your posts!


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