Drawings can provide particular insights into the minds of their creators, as well as shedding light on their working processes, daily lives and interests. Some of the most useful clues are found in inscriptions added to sketches.
These marks are the subject of Reading Drawings, a display at London’s Courtauld Gallery. The assembled works examine the intriguing variety of inscriptions that can be found on drawings, from artists’ signatures to casual notes and records of ownership, as well how they can widen our understanding of a drawing’s subject, its relationship to a more ambitious work, or its purpose.
Signatures suggest finished works in their own right, while other annotations can point to experiments in form or technique. Such notes can place a drawing in an artist’s career, or may be totally unrelated. Nevertheless, they remind us that reading drawings can be as important as other forms of appreciation.
Here the show’s curator, Rachel Hapoienu of the Courtauld Institute, and Furio Rinaldi, specialist in Old Master Drawings, look at seven categories of inscription that enrich our understanding of one of art's most intimate genres.
The custom of signing drawings became popular in the late 15th century, explains Rinaldi, when Northern European draughtstmen began following the example of printmakers by marking their creations with their initials. Signatures were rather uncommon in Italian drawings, although our upcoming Old Master Drawings sale reveals an exceptional case of authorship and self-consciousness for a woman artist of the early 17th century, Giovanna Garzoni. She proudly signed two gouaches commissioned by the Medici family. ‘They are superb examples of her outstanding abilities in reproductive miniatures,’ Rinaldi observes.
Names written on drawings are not always artist’s signatures, but can also be attributions added by later owners. ‘Such additions are not always correct and can lead scholars astray,’ warns Rachel Hapoienu, although she adds that such inscriptions can sometimes help with provenance. One work in the Reading Drawings exhibition, by 18th-century Italian painter Francesco Simonini, bears the artist’s name in the handwriting of a collector whose attributions are considered to be so accurate that he is known by scholars as ‘the Reliable Venetian Hand’. ‘The identification of his handwriting allows us to place this drawing in Venice in the 18th century, thus providing essential information,’ Hapoienu says.
When the practice of collecting drawings developed between the 15th and 16th centuries, collectors usually pasted them into albums, often annotating them with inventory numbers or stamped initials. With an uncommon predilection for early 15th and 16th-century works, Father Sebastiano Resta was among the most important 17th-century connoisseurs of Italian drawings. ‘Sheets from his collection can be spotted through a letter followed by numbers, written in a tiny script directly on the drawing,’ says Rinaldi. ‘One example in the January auction is a sheet of studies by the Renaissance sculptor and architect Raffaello da Montelupo, which Resta attributed to Michelangelo.’
Beyond attribution, inscriptions can connect drawings to others, thereby helping us to better understand their purpose and place in an artist’s career. In the January 2017 Old Master Drawings sale, the study for The Chariot of the Setting Sun by Genoese master Luca Cambiaso is annotated at the bottom, in similar ink to the composition, ‘Sole cadente’ (Setting sun). This sheet corresponds to a drawing of similar size found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, similarly annotated, presumably by Cambiaso, ‘Sole oriente’, to indicate a chariot that represents the rising of the sun in the east.
Notes added by artists during the drawing process can reveal much about their working method. In the Courtauld exhibition a drawing of Villefranche-sur-Mer on the French Riviera by Edward Lear, the 19th-century artist and poet, records date and time, as well as being numbered, suggesting multiple studies of the same scene.
‘He must have been working rapidly and in the open air,’ says Rachel Hapoienu, ‘as he only sketched in the outlines of the topography, while adding phonetic notes recording the colour and other landscape features.’ Once back in his studio, Lear went over his graphite notes in pen, adding watercolour according to his earlier instructions.
As direct expressions of an artist’s original ideas and designs, drawings are often annotated with information on subject matter and measurements of the canvas or panel to be used. In the Old Master Drawings sale, Volterrano’s energetic sheet of studies relates to one of his most important commissions, the monumental Assumption of the Virgin fresco in the dome of the Santissima Annunziata church in Florence. ‘The sheet was previously considered a study for his earlier Coronation of the Virgin in the church of Santa Croce,’ Rinaldi explains, ‘but the autograph annotations referring to ‘iudit’ identify it as a study for Judith, a figure that appears only in his Santissima Annunziata fresco.’
Hapoienu says that inscriptions unrelated to adjacent drawings are intriguing in themselves, as they offer rare glimpses into the daily lives of artists. A drawing in the Courtauld display, attributed to an artist in Raphael’s studio, may portray Alexander the Great with his physician.
Above the heads of the figures is a list of days and the corresponding food eaten, beginning with ‘Sunday evening sausage bread and salad’. Paper was scarce in Renaissance workshops, where drawings were merely studies for other projects, not valuable works of art in themselves. ‘Recording a “food diary” is probably familiar to many people today,’ Hapoienu says, ‘and thus offers a modern museum visitor a connection with the first owner of this sheet.’