Drapery and the secret history of painting

Though often taken for granted, drapery binds modern abstract painting by artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko to Giotto, Rubens and the greats of the past


Main image: Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, circa 1485. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy / Bridgeman Images

When I first studied the history of art, at the Courtauld Institute in London, one of my tutors was the formidable Anita Brookner. Her special subject was French painting of the Romantic period, but it was her approach to art in general that I found enlightening, and eye-opening.

I recall one of her instructions in particular: ‘Always remember, when you’re looking at a painting, that every last detail is important: nothing is there by accident.’ She said this so often that I came to think of it as her motto. And it’s a pretty good rule of thumb for anyone who spends much time looking at pictures, and trying to take them seriously.

Artists often reveal their intentions most fully, and express themselves most deeply, in the way they handle the parts of a picture that are most easily overlooked. So what at first sight we take to be the prevailing spirit of a picture, its dominant mood, can drastically change when we notice a single, telling detail that had previously escaped our attention.

A good example might be the bloodied axe that lurks in the shadows of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, sole reminder of the acts of cannibalism carried out by the real men whose survival this picture marks in such monumental style — a detail that truly resembles a murder weapon left at a crime scene. Once it has been seen, the picture suddenly seems less heroic, and more morbid.

Centuries before the idea of abstract art had even been dreamed of, the flow and the rhythm of drapery offered figurative painters expressive possibilities akin to those promised by abstraction

But there are other aspects of pictures that can evade our attention for precisely the opposite reason — not because they have to be hunted out in overlooked corners, but because they are so integral to a painting’s construction that we can simply forget to think about them. They are hidden in plain sight.

One of the best examples of what I mean by this is drapery. Every artist who has ever depicted human beings in action has been obliged — most of the time, at least — to clothe his figures in some form of drapery or costume. So much so that drapery itself became part of the language of painting: as much of a given, one might say, as any of the parts of speech in written language.

It gives the impression that it is there simply because it has to be there, so we pay it less attention than it deserves. But because it has always been so malleable, so open to invention — so inviting of artistic invention, both in colour and form — drapery has always played a vital part in what might be called the secret history of painting.

Centuries before the idea of abstract art had even been dreamed of, the flow and the rhythm of drapery, its twists of form and its sudden explosions of colour, offered figurative painters expressive possibilities closely akin to those promised by abstraction. Look at how an artist paints drapery and you often see, in its purest state, how they use form and colour to express the emotions that lie at the heart of their work.


Duccio di Buoninsegna, (c.1278-1318), The Maestà front, 1308-1311 (tempera on panel detail), Duomo, Siena, Italy.  This scene shows the descent to Limbo. Christ wears a red and blue cloth with golden heightening. Bridgeman Images

This has been true at least since the dawn of the Renaissance. The two giants of early Italian painting, Duccio and Giotto, use drapery in beguilingly different ways. Duccio, who was from Siena, a town that prided itself on the magnificence of its textiles, clothes his figures in sweeping, sinuous folds of stuff that exist, on one level, to advertise the wares of his native city.

But he also deploys his mastery of painting fine silks and damasks to enhance his telling of the story of Christ’s Passion. Christ is the only one of his figures to wear a robe braided with sinuous threads of gold, so that you can follow his progress from panel to panel of the predella of the Maestà, even with half-closed eyes: his movement towards death and beyond, into resurrection, becomes the journey of a golden thread, its perfection persisting through whatever troubles destiny drags it through.

Giotto, by contrast, has a much more sober, monumental conception of drapery. The figures in his Arena Chapel frescoes are draped heavily, in huge swags and folds of cloth that resemble costumes carved from marble. The artist uses their sheer weight as an expressive device, in different ways. In the forbidding betrayal scene, as Judas kisses Jesus he also sweeps his body into the great veil of his cloak, as if walling him into a world of treachery with the very clothing that he wears.


Giotto, Kiss of Judas, part of the Arena Chapel fresco cycle in Padua, 1303–05. De Agostini Picture Library / A. Dagli Orti / Bridgeman Images

Later on, as the story of the Passion reaches its climax, Mary and the other mourners collapse around Christ’s dying and then dead body. Their forms remain monumental, precisely because Giotto’s drapery is so stone-like, so marmoreal, which makes the cracking of their faces into raw grief seem all the more shocking: it’s like watching a statue burst into tears.

If Giotto’s drapery seems inspired by dreams of stone, the painters of the northern Renaissance clothe their figures in a fabric that has the friable angularity of carvings made from wood.


Workshop of Robert Campin (Jacques Daret?), The Virgin and Child in an Interior, before 1432. Oil on oak. Photograph © The National Gallery, London.

In Jacques Daret’s beautiful little Virgin and Child in an Interior, in London’s National Gallery, the Virgin cradling her child so tenderly by a Netherlandish fireside is draped in what might be an armature of crisply cut limewood, painted in ultramarine. Her robes, blue as the vault of heaven, make her at once otherworldly and poignantly fragile: brittle as a wafer.

In Rogier van der Weyden’s great Descent from the Cross, in the Prado, drapery takes on a yet more emphatic role, not merely clothing the figures but re-enacting, in its own rhythmic intertwinings, the tragedy in which the figures are implicated. Look at the way in which the rhythms of the dead Christ’s body, borne down from the cross, are rhymed and repeated in the tragic falls and folds of drapery that both enclose and extend the collapsing body of his mother, Mary, who has fainted dead away in shock at the foot of the cross. Mary herself is conjured up only as a ghost-pale face with eyes closed and two limp hands as fine as ivory.


Rogier van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross, circa 1435. Prado, Madrid, Spain / Bridgeman Images

The rest of her is a mass of blue drapery, which in only one place (the protuberance of her hip) suggests a body beneath; everywhere else it is just itself, an abstracted river running down beneath the cross and away to a place the eye cannot follow, in creases and folds like waves, their edges rimmed by streaks of gold. I call it drapery, but of course in Rogier’s hands it became something much more than that, namely a way of giving shape to a feeling: grief without end.

Drapery can tell a tale as eloquently as the actors playing it out: 50 years after Rogier’s Descent from the Cross, Botticelli made the idea explicit in his spellbinding Birth of Venus. The goddess is naked, veiled only in whorls and coils of her own blonde hair, as she steps from the shell that has carried her from sea to land. Her coming to earth is symbolic of her giving up her virginity: the picture was commissioned as a gift for a Medici bride, marking the imminent surrender of her own maidenhood. But this central aspect of the picture’s meaning is only fully unfolded in the drapery.


Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1485. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy / Bridgeman Images

As the goddess comes to earth, her maid advances to enfold her in a flesh-coloured mantle embroidered with flowers: symbol of her destiny, to be enrobed in the carnal world, her womb bearing fruit. At the apex of the painting, next to Venus’s wistfully beautiful face, one loop of this drapery is shaped, by the attendant’s careful fingers, into a startlingly exact simulacrum of the female sex. Inside this carefully fabricated image of a vulva the artist has placed a single green leaf. Botticelli’s drapery is carefully painted and has a ritualistic seriousness about it. Later, mythological painters would shape a wilder world of drapery forms, a response, often, to Dionysian imaginings.

Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, a memorable depiction of love at first sight, translates the idea of sexual ecstasy into the twistings and twirls of a drapery so denatured, as clothing, that we experience it instead as a kind of colour music. Bacchus trails a flare of lightning-strike pink. Ariadne, like a planet whirled suddenly into his orbit, is wrapped in sea-blue and pearl-white and ringed around in trembling curves of red, the colour of fresh blood.

In the 17th century, Poussin would extend the tradition in a more measured way. His otherworldly dancers move above all to the rhythms of colour unleashed: wind-ruffled robes of acid yellow, stark orange, ice blue, which are just as abstracted and ideal, in their suggestions of a world beyond this one yet partaking of its forms, as the dancing blocks of colour in a Mondrian grid painting.

Drapery has often been an escape route for painters, liberating them from reality and the perception that it is their role necessarily to represent the tangible world. This was emphatically true for Rubens, whose exuberance in unfurling vast swathes of polychrome drapery across altarpiece and state portrait alike — the swathes of cloth really just excuses for painting clouds of gorgeous, saturated colour –— was a form of aggressive emphasis: a way of showing just how wedded he was to unnecessary, superfluous, abundant beauty.

He got away with it by making his own colouristic abundance so desirable and intoxicating that it became part of the visual language of power and luxury. Hence the long afterlife that this kind of opulently Rubensian drapery would enjoy in the art of the West, winding to its brilliant conclusion in French art of the ancien régime — think of the portraits of Rigaud and Largillière, whose sitters seem almost to drown in the regal superfluity of the silken lakes that flow across their likenesses — before being abruptly cut off by the new asceticism of the French Revolution, which is itself announced in drapery by David and his followers. After 1789, true citizens wear togas, or at least smocks in plain colours that fall in plain lines to the floor: drapery, by then, had come to spell decadence.


Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Drapery, circa 1899. State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg /Russia /Bridgman Images

But that is not quite the end of the story. Cézanne and then the Cubists would reinvent drapery as a subject of high seriousness, part of a re-evaluation of the language of representation itself (although, funnily enough, their drapery strongly resembles the craggy, stony fabric of Giotto). Matisse might be said to have devoted his life to the proposition that the whole of a painting might be as freely handled as a single passage of drapery in a picture of earlier times.

Moving further forward into the world of modern painting, Mark Rothko created a language for abstract painting that turned on making pictures that actually resembled draperies, or veils, of pure shimmering colour; while his contemporary and co-pioneer in abstract expressionism, Jackson Pollock, also made pictures that resembled skeins, formed from threads of thrown or dripped paint.

Were such artists consciously, or unconsciously, acknowledging the ties that bind modern abstract painting to the drapery painting of the past? Or am I stretching the definition of drapery too far? I think I had better leave it there, before I lose my thread.

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