On Friday 29th January, a group of Ertegun Scholars experienced the first installment this term of what is sure to be an incredible series of partnered events between the Ertegun Scholarship Programme and the Ashmolean Museum. On this particular trip we had the privilege of meeting with An Van Camp, the Ashmolean’s curator of Dutch, Flemish and German paintings, drawings and prints. As both an artist and an art historian, I knew this private showing would have a particularly significant resonance, but I didn’t realize just how powerful it would be.
Upon arrival, our group of 12 scholars wound our way through back staircases of the museum and into the print room where we saw researchers quietly studying. We later learned that the Ashmolean has around 30,000 original drawings and hundreds of thousands of prints—all accessible to the students and scholars of Oxford—including drawings by the greatest Italian masters, such as Michelangelo and Raphael. But we soon made our way to another room, where we met Dr Van Camp and sat down before a series of works propped up and soon to be explained to us.
Looking at drawings, versus large finished paintings, is perhaps one of my favorite artistic experiences. This is largely because drawings are an remarkably personal and intimate medium. I feel as though drawings bring us closer to both the mind and body of the artist. There is something very private about seeing an artist’s process—something that he or she did not intend for many to observe, especially in the 15th century when drawings were not considered as the revered artistic category that they are today. Additionally, drawings such as the ones we would soon learn about, are unable to be displayed permanently, as they must be protected in carefully environment-controlled conditions. For this reason alone, it is quite a special experience to see these original works so closely.
Rather than the Italian masters, Dr Van Camp had chosen a range of Northern European drawings and select prints, of the very highest quality, from the 15th to 17th centuries. The artists shown included, among others, Rogier van der Weyden, Antony van Dyck, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, and Albrecht Dürer. In addition to the content of the works, we discussed the techniques of production. In a technical sense, the very small and detailed work by Rogier van der Weyden was particularly fascinating to me. The technique used was called “metal point,” and consisted of the preparation of the paper with a glue made from crushed animal bones. The artist then used a pen made entirely of silver to sketch onto the surface; little bits of silver were left behind on the abrasive surface creating a visible line. Because graphite was not used during the 14th century, and the quill could be worn down easily, silver was the only way to achieve lines thin enough to create minute facial details.
Though all of the works were emotive and poignant in their own ways, one which particularly affected me was a drawing by Rembrandt in red and black chalk, with brown wash. In it, an older bearded man sits with his head down and eyes closed. The drawing is rare, as it is labeled with a name on its surface. From this information, art historians know that the drawing is of Rembrandt’s father. For me, this work took the intimacy of drawing to an even more moving and personal level. As I stood above the work, looking at the various lines and blots of wash on the page, I couldn’t help but think of the artist in the 17th century, sketching his father in a private and quiet moment. As an art historian, I often fall into the trap of considering art as an abstract of historical reality—and I am truly thankful for experiences like this, that remind me of the humanness of artists and the very realness of their creative processes.