A new exhibition of metalpoint artwork at the National Gallery is subtitled “Leonardo [Da Vinci] to Jasper Johns.” Admittedly, two out of three Da Vinci paintings on view are lackluster and the sole Johns offering leaves much to be desired.

These big names are most likely there to draw visitors in but once museumgoers get a look at what’s inside, the need for flashiness dissolves. If you did still need it, there are satisfying works by Raphael, Sandro Botticelli and Rembrandt Van Rijn among others.

This album page from Giorgio Vasari’s “Book of Design,” a treatise on the craft, features numerous metalpoints from artists including Sandro Botticelli. (Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art/Woodner Collection)
This album page from Giorgio Vasari’s “Book of Design,” a treatise on the craft, features numerous metalpoints from artists including Sandro Botticelli. (Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art/Woodner Collection)

The exhibition, “Drawing In Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns,” opened May 3 at the National Gallery and chronicles the history of metalpoint artwork.This technique uses “a metal stylus on a specially prepared surface,” according to a news release. “As the stylus travels across this slightly abrasive ground, it leaves behind a small amount of metal, creating a shimmering line,” the release said.

The most common metal used was silver and the silverpoint drawings have faded slightly in the centuries since their creation, turning a brownish color. The goldpoint on view, conversely, has remained much more striking – mainly because gold does not tarnish, a documentary film that accompanies the exhibition explained.

“Artists since the Renaissance have used metalpoint to create some of the most magnificent and technically accomplished drawings in the history of art,” gallery director Earl Powell III said in the news release.

The works on view range from the early Dutch, German and Italian practitioners of the craft, who used it mainly to create studies for larger works. The late Dutch revolutionized the technical aspect for more detail and ease of use,  and the Victorian-age British artists   picked metalpoint up again for completed works and the contemporary American artists  took it into the realm of modernism.

“Viewing the technique of metalpoint in this broad context provides a unique opportunity to recognize patterns in drawing practices and affords a striking demonstration of the versatility of the medium,” Stacey Sell, co-curator of the exhibition said in the release.

Albrecht Durer’s “The Cathedral at Aachen” from 1520 is so faded that it has a mystical quality, recalling an artistic time nearly as long gone to us as Charlemagne’s capital in that city was to him. Hans Baldung’s “Landscape With Two Views of Castles in Alsace” is similarly hazy; here in part tinted with watercolor, possibly by a later hand, according to exhibition wall text.

The highlight-negotiated musculature in Durer’s “A Dog Resting” is phenomenal as is the hurried silverpoint that suggests fur. In “Head of A Woman,” Durer uses a pigment wash, white paint and possibly chalk; the highlights formed, like those of Italian metalpoint artists, give a Roman quality to his work, which is solid and reflective, resembling marble.

“A Bust of a Warrior,” the most impressive and complete Leonardo Da Vinci metalpoint on view showcases great detail by an early Italian artist. (Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art/The British Museum)
“A Bust of a Warrior,” the most impressive and complete Leonardo Da Vinci metalpoint on view showcases great detail by an early Italian artist. (Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art/The British Museum)

A silverpoint from the workshop of Roger Van Der Weyden recreates a painted altarpiece portrait of St. Mary Magdalene,whichVan Der Weyden himself created for a triptych commissioned by the Braque family. “The Death of the Virgin,” a ghostly silverpoint done by an unknown artist using on the pale-green paper that typified Dutch metalpoint circa 1400, shows the shrouded Mary rising to heaven.

This tinted paper technique was used by 16th century Italian painters as well. Some on view include Fra Fillipo Lippi, Leonardo Da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Raphael. Some of the works resemble British Wedgwood pottery in their coloration and contrast.

Two intriguing works in the center of the Italian room stitch together numerous artists’ metalpoints in a collage exploration of the craft.

In the 1550s, the Dutch and Flemish created ridiculously fine detail in metalpoint by utilizing new techniques and materials. Two out of the three known metalpoints by Rembrandt Van Rijn are on view in “Drawing…,” one a double sided sketch of thatched cottages and human head studies, the other a quick landscape of a Netherlandic canal. As one visitor bemoaned, Rembrandt’s most complete silverpoint “The Artist’s Bride of Three Days” is not present.

Joseph Southall’s 1899 “Head of A Girl” – like an updated version of Durer’s “Head of A Woman” – portrays a more modern damsel with a contemporary shirt neckline, wavy hair and even bangs. (Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art/The Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens)
Joseph Southall’s 1899 “Head of A Girl” – like an updated version of Durer’s “Head of A Woman” – portrays a more modern damsel with a contemporary shirt neckline, wavy hair and even bangs. (Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art/The Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens)

Victorian metalpoint – done mainly by British artists emulating some of the Italian masters on view earlier in the exhibition – took a new degree of modernity, subtlety and elegance to the medium.

In Andrew MacCallum’s “Finest of Scots Firs,” the perfect silverpoint that captures the morning sun as it caresses leaves and trunks by casting ghostly shadows and inspired highlights reveal why this work is in the personal collection of H.M. Elizabeth II, according to exhibition wall text.

Joseph Southall’s 1899 “Head of A Girl” – like an updated version of Durer’s “Head of A Woman” – portrays a more modern damsel with a contemporary shirt neckline, wavy hair and even bangs.

Modern metalpoint focuses on the medium’s dependance on lines and patterns, such as John Storrs’s “Woman With Her Hand on Her Chin,” which, with outline only, merely suggests form. Jasper Johns’s untitled 1984 work on view presents a white vase casting a shadow on a geometric background.

“Strata #2,” a 1998 work by Susan Schwalb uses various types of metal in horizontal lines, truly experimenting with the nature of metalpoint itself with surprisingly aesthetically pleasing results. (Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art)
“Strata #2,” a 1998 work by Susan Schwalb uses various types of metal in horizontal lines, truly experimenting with the nature of metalpoint itself with surprisingly aesthetically pleasing results. (Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art)

“Strata #2,” a 1998 work by Susan Schwalb uses various types of metal in horizontal lines, truly experimenting with the nature of metalpoint itself with surprisingly aesthetically pleasing results.

“Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns” runs at the National Gallery of Art until July 26.

headshotEvan Berkowitz is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at evanjberkowitz@gmail.com.

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