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History of Drawing

Updated on May 26, 2010

The earliest drawings were pictures of animals made by prehistoric man on the cave walls. The cave artist recorded only the essential outlines and forms of animals and did not bother with details. Later, drawing became useful as a means of communication. A particular series of images could be used to tell a story. Gradually, writing developed as a kind of abstract drawing. Pictures were simplified into pictographs (pictorial signs) and later into letter shapes. In the Orient, drawing and writing developed together within the general art of calligraphy. The same techniques of penmanship were employed in drawing as in writing. In the West, however, the arts of drawing and writing became separated.

The rebirth of Western drawing in the 15th century came with the widespread production of paper. At the same time the artist became interested in representing in great detail the physical world around him. Renaissance artists made innumerable exploratory sketches and studies of objects, figures, and nature. They formulated laws of perspective, foreshortening, shading, anatomical proportion, motion and direction, and other principles and techniques of drawing. The primary aim of many Renaissance draftsmen was to create the illusion of visual reality in their works.

One of the earliest Renaissance masters of drawing was Leonardo da Vinci, whose sketchbooks contain hundreds of experimental drawings made with pen and ink, chalk, and metalpoint. Typical of his subjects were animals in motion, the forms of flowers and plant life, human anatomy, and real or imaginary machines. Leonardo's drawings were often minutely exact studies compiled for the purpose of documenting visual details. Albrecht Diirer, a contemporary of Leonardo, was also among the first great graphic artists. Diirer is famous for his detailed studies of anatomy, plants, and animals, as well as for his religious subjects, which include the Holy Trinity (Boston Museum of Fine Arts) and St. Catherine (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City).

In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, and Hans Holbein the Younger, made preliminary studies and sketches before beginning a painting. A full-sized drawing, called a cartoon, was often used as the basis for the final work. Michelangelo's red chalk Study for the Libyan Sibyl (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City) closely resembles his finished fresco painting in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome.

The Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel was one of the first to make detailed and finished landscape drawings. His Italian contemporary Tintoretto used red chalk for outstanding anatomical studies and was also a master of wash drawing. Other notable draftsmen of the 16th and 17th centuries include Peter Paul Rubens, who is known for his pen, brush, and chalk figures, and Rembrandt, whose pen-and-wash drawings, such as Esther and Mordecai (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City), are remarkable for their spontaneity and conciseness of detail. Rembrandt's drawings have sometimes been compared to Oriental scroll paintings.

During the 18th century, drawing was often used to make a comment on the artist's period and society. In France, Antoine Watteau, Jean Honore Fragonard, and Francois Boucher made hundreds of chalk and wash drawings that reflected the tastes, fashions, and customs of the age. The Italian artists Canaletto and Francesco Guardi recorded their impressions of 18th-century Venice in pen-and-ink drawings that later provided the basis for their paintings. In England, William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson developed the type of drawing known as caricature for satirizing the foibles of the growing middle class. Exaggeration was the favorite device of the caricaturist and led to the modern cartoon. The Spanish artist Francisco Goya extended the art of caricature into powerful social criticism, both in his brush drawings and his brilliant etchings.

In the 19th century, masterpieces of caricature were produced by the French artists Honore Daumier and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The English artist William Blake drew in an imaginative and romantic style. Blake's pen-and-watercolor drawings, as his illustrations for the Book of Job, including Job's Despair (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City), reflect his interest in the world of the imagination rather than in the external world. In contrast, the French artist J.A.D. Ingres achieved a precise descriptive exactness of line, as in his famous pencil drawing The Guillon-Lethiere Family (Boston Museum of Fine Arts).

One of the most remarkable of the 19th-century draftsmen was Edgar Degas. Despite almost total blindness in his old age, Degas produced charcoal and pastel masterpieces. At the end of the century, Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Odilon Redon, and other Postimpressionists used black crayon, charcoal, reed pen, and a variety of other materials and created brilliant new effects. These artists were greatly influenced by the Japanese tradition, in which the pen or brush stroke itself was as important as the subject being represented.

In the 20th century many outstanding painters have also produced brilliant drawings using a great variety of graphic techniques. Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Joan Miro, Amedeo Modigliani, George Grosz, and Ben Shahn are only a few of the artists who have contributed to the rich array of contemporary drawings.

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