Treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden: The Collections of Count Tessin is a real testament to the importance of collectors as protectors of art. The majority of the works in the collection are old master drawings, which greatly outnumber and outshine the paintings in the exhibition. Pursuing the galleries, one cannot help but feel gratitude to the Tessin family for the preservation of these delicate insights into various masters’ minds. This sentiment is perfectly embodied in Chardin’s The Sedan Chair, which the exhibition points out was a study for an early work that Chardin later destroyed. Had Count Tessin not collected the drawing early on, the work’s entire record would have been lost. The collection of drawings presents a history that paintings do not tell, as their materiality is just as fragile as the moment in which they were executed. The foresight of the Tessin family to direct their focus on the collection of drawings is both unique and impressive for their time and has provided us with the exceptional opportunity to delve into both the mind of the artists and the vision of the collectors.
Annibale Carracci’s Nude Study of a Young Man Lying on his Back is arguably the strongest piece in the exhibition. Carracci’s use red chalk is breathtaking and the drawing shows the immense versatility of red chalk, which Carracci took full advantage of. Carracci outlined the figure with a sharp contour line, which then contrasts with the light treatment of the model’s flesh, helping accentuate the softness of the models body. Carracci chose a complicated perspective to draw the model from, which granted him the task of not only foreshortening but of accurately depicting a head that hangs from the edge of a surface. The drawing’s focal point, both literally and metaphorically, is Carracci’s study of the model’s hand, which Carracci seems to pay extra attention to. The positioning and the study of light pouring onto a body from one source is reminiscent of the drawing by Carracci at the Met’s drawings department, although this seems to be a more advanced work.
Giulio Romano’s Apollo and Cyparissus is another of the exhibition’s gems. Executed in pen, brown ink, and brow wash, Romano plays with the mediums for both precision and abstraction. The loose marks on the tree act very differently than the strong outline on each figure’s body, although both done with ink. The brown wash gives depth between the figures and accentuates light and shadow, directing the viewer attention onto the two men about to kiss. The depiction of the nude bodies is also interesting, as the figure seated on the lap of his lover seems to be proportioned particularly small. The waist of both nudes is elongated and it’s clear from the drawing that Romano seems more focused on eroticism than anatomical precision. In fact, it’s questionable whether Romano used live models for the drawings at all. Nonetheless, as many of Romano’s erotic drawings were destroyed because of their provocative nature, the survival of this drawing again points us to the importance of a collector and his or her role in preserving works of art.
Nicolas Poussin’s The Nourishment of Jupiter, another work made with pen and brown ink, is one of the show’s few experimental drawings and is clearly a study rather than finished work. The figures are drawn quickly, with just enough time to outline the body and its positioning and capture the energy of the model. Poussin uses the pen and ink to accentuate the abstraction, seen in both the treatment of the bodies and trees. The work, a compositional drawing for a painting, is a great example of the true meaning of disegno, simultaneously meaning drawing and design (or the first step in translating a divine idea onto paper).
What makes the exhibition, and Count Tessin’s collections, so strong, is that it brings together studies from Italy, France, and the Netherlands, prompting an interesting dialogue between the works. How do Rembrandt’s drawings converse with Poussin and Carracci? What do the similarities and differences tell us about the art of drawing in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries? After surveying the works in the exhibition, it seems that the Italians had the most interest in the study of the human form, where as the Dutch and French utilized drawing to explore portraiture and studies of nature and animals. But then one is once again reminded that we are seeing the drawings through Count Tessin’s eyes, and these observations are just as much about the collector’s choices as about art historical concerns. Therefore, the drawings in Treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden: The Collections of Count Tessin not only let us peak into the mind of masters such as Rembrant, Van Dyck, Poussin, and Carracci, but to the collector and his legacy, allowing us to see through the eyes of Count Tessin and telling us the story of the beginnings of Sweeden’s art collection.
Treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden: The Collections of Count Tessin
February 3 through May 14, 2017