The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt at the National Portrait Gallery
The Encounter – it’s an intriguing title for an exhibition. It may sound like the name of a new sci-fi blockbuster, but once you get inside the latest show at the National Portrait Gallery, it’s easy to see what it refers to. The drawn portraits on display all evoke a sense of connection between portraitist and sitter, and between viewer and artwork, with a stamp of humanity that is key to how we understand art.
Drawings are often relegated as secondary materials by art historians and curators, so it’s refreshing to see them centre stage here. These are works of art in their own right, whether they were intended to be or not. From half-finished multi-part sketches to carefully coloured likenesses, these portraits share something vital: a sense of immediacy and intimacy that is often lacking from other art forms from this period.
There’s something exciting about seeing a study of a male nude, meticulously worked by Leonardo da Vinci’s own hand. The same is true about a sheet of quickly sketched figure studies by Rembrandt. But the greatest vitality can be found in close-up portraits, some by famous names such as the Caracci brothers, Filippino Lippi or Benozzo Gozzoli, and some by unidentified hands.
Particularly exquisite (and worth the exhibition entrance fee alone) are a series of drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger of members of Henry VIII’s court. The gazes of these figures are piercing; they feel instantly knowable and almost seem as if they could have been done yesterday. These are studies made for oil paintings, and Holbein has paid close attention to the precise details of the sitter’s face. The clothes and surroundings are barely sketched in, giving a feeling of movement, as if Holbein has captured the sitter in a few deft strokes before going back and meticulously depicting each eyelash and strand of beard.
The arrangement of the exhibition does at times feel a little haphazard. There are themed sections, but they feel slightly vague, and it’s hard to pick out a clear curatorial narrative. Nevertheless, the drawings work well together as a whole and the two-room space is well used. The Encounter is not a big exhibition, but the works on show are definitely worth lingering over.
The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt is at the National Portrait Gallery from 13th July until 22nd October 2017. For further information or to book visit here.