Michelangelo is the star of this year's "Master Drawings" exhibition mounted by the London dealer Jean-Luc Baroni. Michelangelo's Study of a Mourning Woman, which was recently found at Castle Howard in England and bought by Baroni at auction, depicts a woman wrapped in drapery with her head bowed. The study, done in brown ink heightened with white bodycolor, was probably prepared for a religious painting.
Happily, the drawing's buyer -- yes, don't start counting your pennies, it's already sold -- is an American. The work is one of only two Michelangelo drawings known to be in private hands. Considering that there are only a handful of Michelangelo drawings in U.S. museums, perhaps the new owner will lend it to an exhibition or two, sharing this wonderful new addition to the master's canon.
For now, connoisseurs can scrutinize the drawing at Adam Williams Fine Art, 50 East 78th Street until May 31st. The work is also slated to go on view during Old Masters week in London, July 1-12, 2002, at Baroni's exhibition at the Asian Art Gallery, 8 Duke Street, St James's.
Study of a Mourning Woman is one of only five works considered to be early examples of Michelangelo's drawing. The drapery defines the rather heavy, muscular body of the woman underneath, typical of Michelangelo, but the crosshatching betrays the influence of Michelangelo's mentor, Domenico Ghirlandaio. It is thought that Michelangelo, who at one time claimed to have learned little from his master, destroyed many of his early studies. The lack of early drawings makes this youthful work, probably executed within a few years of his entering Ghirlandaio's studio in 1487 at 12 years of age, all the more important.
Found pasted into an album with otherwise mediocre drawings at England's Castle Howard in Yorkshire, the drawing sold for £5,943,500 (or roughly $8.4 million) at Sotheby's in London on July 11, 2001. Baroni was widely identified as the bidder at the time. According to the trade, the drawing's new owner is reputed to have paid in the low eight figures.
You do not need an eight-figure sum to walk away with a superb drawing from this show, however, although many have already been sold. And with more than 50 works from several European schools, there is plenty to choose from. A thrilling brown-ink-and-wash by Il Guercino, The Archangel Michael Defeating the Devil, has the contorted yet graceful body of the winged Michael ready to execute the devil, cowering on the ground, with a pointed, serpentine rapier. Seems only fair after what happened in the Garden, right?
By lining up the devil with the legs, body and right wing of the Archangel and cropping the wing at the top of the sheet, the artist has compressed tremendous energy into the figure. It whips up anticipation in the viewer for the upcoming coup de grâce.
A lovely pastoral landscape by Guercino is also on view, showing the influence of the Dutch, especially Rembrandt. Both have been sold, as has a sensitive and elegant black chalk Head of a Young Boy Crowned with Laurel by Lorenzo di Credi (before 1510) and a delicate, early pencil portrait by Edgar Degas (1856 or 1857) in the manner of Ingres.
Other stand-outs still available when I attended the opening were a small gray ink Christ Nailed to the Cross by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (the better-known Giambattista's eldest son) ($14,000) from the mid-1700s and a rousing battle scene by Stradanus from the late 1500s ($240,000). There was also a pencil drawing of a Standing Man smoking a pipe, all insouciance, by Clément-Auguste Andrieux from the 19th century for only $2,600.
A little gem by Johann Wilhelm Baur, View of the Villa Ludovisi in Rome from the 1630s, measures only 3 by 5 inches. It was made to be a seen with a magnifying glass, though a good squint will do. It is a window into another world, depicting the villa with its sculptures and fountain, a coach, and more than 28 figures. At $40,000, it seems like a steal, considering all the pleasure it is sure to provide -- though perhaps not for those who plunked down $600,000 for one of Julian Schnabel's bloated "Big Girl Paintings."
Two surprises are worth noting. First, a Self-Portrait by the Italian Chiara Capurro, about whom nothing is known. This is a lovely romantic oil-on-paper from 1824. Possibly the handiwork of a talented amateur, it costs $18,000.
The other surprise, unexpected in a show of drawings, is one of the great Italian paintings of the 17th century. Florentine Lorenzo Lippi made The Creation of Music his most famous oil, in the mid-1600s using the comely daughter of his chief patron as the model for the figure. Lippi's skillful evocation of textures and his still vibrant colors make this an easy painting to admire. Off it goes to the museum or private collector willing to spend $2 million.
"Master Drawings" is on view through May 31, 2002, at Jean-Luc Baroni Ltd. at Adam Williams Fine Art Ltd., 50 East 78th Street, New York City.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.