Lucas van Leyden may be called the first North Netherlandish artist to achieve wide international fame. More than on his rare paintings, his reputation was based on his prolific work as a printmaker, and this extensive graphic œuvre – the Netherlandish counterpart to that of Albrecht Dürer – remains one of the highpoints of Dutch art, setting in several ways its tone and themes for the next century or two. A child prodigy like Dürer, Lucas must have been as productive and accomplished as a draughtsman as he was as an engraver, but very few of his drawings survive today. The largest group is now held at the British Museum, and none remains fully in private hands. Only two additions to the group of twenty-six catalogued by Wouter Kloek in 1978 (see Literature) can be mentioned: a drawing acquired by the Rijksmuseum in 1982 (exhib. cat. Leiden, 2011, op. cit., no. 134, ill., entry by W. Kloek), and one that surfaced in 2005, and was subsequently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (ibid., no. 85.a, ill., entry by Kloek).
The Bloxam drawing entered scholarly literature as late as 1958, when it was shown at the Rijksmuseum’s seminal exhibition of Medieval art from the Northern Netherlands, and published by Karel G. Boon in its catalogue (exhib. cat., Amsterdam, 1958, op. cit., no. 199; see also Müller Hofstede, op. cit., p. 232). Boon and all later authors were surely correct in connecting it with another figure study in black chalk at the Rijksmuseum, depicting a boy who seems to be posing with a sword and a stone (see exhib. cat., Leiden, 2011, op. cit., no. 66, ill., entry by Kloek). Both drawings are cut out of a larger sheet and pasted onto a seventeenth-century album sheet, making one wonder whether they could have come from the same sheet (as also suggested ibid., p. 267). However, a confrontation of the two drawings at the Rijksprentenkabinet on 8 October 2018 made clear the softer and more blunted quality of the piece of chalk used in the Amsterdam sheet; and the relative proportions of the figures do not seem to match, the boy in Amsterdam being closer in height to the young man in Rugby than his age suggests. Moreover, both sheets have differing watermarks, a flower pot in the case of the Bloxam drawing (for a discussion, see below). The watermarks in the secondary supports also do not match, suggesting the drawings led a separate life since at least the seventeenth century.
While most scholars have also pointed out that the Bloxam drawing is overall more detailed and accomplished, with the intricate folds of the youth’s cloak more convincingly modelled, this does not, in our view, mean it must be of later date (pace Kloek, 1978, op. cit., p. 429; and Leiden, 2011, op. cit., p. 267, under no. 66, entry by Kloek). Possibly inspired by the traditional (and long-rejected) identification of the Amsterdam drawing as an early self-portrait, both drawings have usually been dated to the first half of Lucas’ short career, and related to engravings from around 1510, such as The Return of the Prodigal Son (J.P. Filedt Kok, The New Hollstein Dutch and Flemish etchings, engravings and woodcuts, 1450-1700. Lucas van Leyden, Rotterdam, 1996, no. 78, ill.). The suggestion that both figure studies may have been made in preparation for a composition intended to be engraved is understandable, given the number of men in similar contemporary dress that appear in Lucas’ prints. The drawing in Amsterdam in particular, in which the young model seems to pose as King David about to confront Goliath, brings to mind Lucas’ gift for narration which is such a hallmark of his graphic work. There are, however, no prints known for which either figure was used, and they could as well be studies for paintings – or indeed, sketches made from life made without any specific purpose in mind. It could also be argued that the more rounded style and natural poses evident in the drawings point to a later date, as was also the opinion of Boon (op. cit., I, p. 122, suggesting ca. 1515-1525). Plenty of similar figures can be found in prints such as The dance of the Magdalen from 1519 (Filedt Kok, op. cit., no. 122, ill.) or Virgil in the basket, dated 1525 (Fig. 3; ibid., no. 136, ill.), or even works from the very end of the artist’s life, around the time of the large, colourful composition of a painting in Saint Petersburg from 1531 (see exhib. cat., Leiden, 2011, op. cit., no. 117a, fig. 1.26b, note by C. Vogelaar). A late dating could recently be confirmed on the basis of the Bloxam drawing’s watermark, unrecorded until now, which is similar to watermarks found in paper used in in the 1520s and 1530s in the Northern Netherlands and Germany.
Although very small, the surviving corpus of drawings by Lucas displays most media available to artists at the time – metalpoint, pen and brush and brown ink, brush, white gouache, as well as black chalk. (One exception is red chalk, which in the Netherlands only found wide use from the second half of the sixteenth century.) In about ten sheets from different stages of his career, Lucas shows a predilection for black chalk, a medium that seems to have been favoured by few of his predecessors or contemporaries (for an example by Jan Gossaert from the early 1510s, see Man, Myth and Sensual Pleasures. Jan Gossart’s Renaissance. The Complete Works, New York and New Haven, 20110, p. 97, no. 72, ill., note by S. Alsteens). In a group of independent portrait drawings from around 1521, inspired by Dürer’s example, Lucas applied the chalk in a regular manner, marrying the controlled technique of the printmaker with the more subtle modelling apt for the portrait genre. In late drawings such as one of Adam and Eve in Hamburg, and especially one at the British Museum, a study for a painting of the Virgin and Child, Lucas handled the chalk in certain passages much more freely, equalling the bravura of some of the best of his Italian contemporaries (see exhib. cat., Leiden, 2011, op. cit., nos. 100, 96b, ill., note by Kloek). The Rugby drawing is again different in character: here, the chalk may have been chosen as the most appropriate medium to work from life, achieving at the same time a great level of detail, a natural rendition of the light falling on the rich drapery, and a speed of execution that shows the artist in full command of his art. Darker accents, perhaps obtained by moistening the chalk, add even greater depth and tone, for instance in the young man’s proper left shoulder, the drapery, and his heels. Above all, the drawing brings alive the distinguished-looking youth and his proud pose in a manner that prefigures the gift for direct observation that characterizes much of later Dutch art.