Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 1, 2001
Pierre Rosenberg From Drawing to Painting: Poussin, Watteau, Fragonard, David & Ingres Princeton University Press in association with National Gallery of Art, 2000. 244 pp.; 265 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (069100918X)

For a series of six Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, Pierre Rosenberg chose as his subject the drawings of five French artists—Nicolas Poussin, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jacques-Louis David, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres—who worked over the span of years when France was transformed politically and socially, but understood their contributions within an unbroken cultural lineage. Rosenberg, along with his collaborator, Louis-Antoine Prat, for years has been preparing definitive catalogues raisonnés of the drawings of these five masters. The first volumes on Poussin and Watteau have appeared and the others are forthcoming. The Mellon lectures gave him just the occasion to articulate the deep connections between drawing and painting and the multiplicity of purposes for drawings by each master.

The world-renowned expert on both French painting and drawing, Rosenberg is uniquely suited to the task he has set himself in the Mellon lectures, which are admirable for their ideas and illustrations. His stunning intellectual capacity to see and know has blazed the trail for other scholars devoted to issues of connoisseurship, patronage, and the historical context of artistic creation. His is a comparative study; in each lecture he establishes for his five stars the areas of overlapping interests and approaches. He devotes his six chapters to the following topics: 1) introduction to his artists; 2) histories, techniques, and themes of the drawings; 3) the practice and the idea; 4) the problems of attribution and dating; 5) the importance of money; and 6) the two sides of the coin of drawing/design and the opposition between disegno and colore.

In Chapter 1, he sets the stage for his artists: training in Paris and education in Italy for four of the five and its powerful influence for all. The common elements are substantial productions as painters and love of their art. Diverse in their range of subjects and techniques in drawing, they all painted “with great difficulty but with pleasure” (23) and all loved drawing as the means to an end and the way to bridge the chasm between abstract idea and finished painting.

In Chapter 2, Rosenberg summarizes the scholarship for all five artists and the fate of the surviving corpus of drawings for each. The central question he addresses is whether they valued their drawings as a means to an end or as independent works of art. All five were copyists of older models in art, either for utilitarian exercise, as a source of inspiration, or on commission. Even experts in the field of French art history might be pleasantly surprised by some of the examples of such copies: Poussin after the antique, Watteau after Campagnola, Fragonard after Caravaggio or Poussin, David after a Roman sculpture, or Ingres after Flaxman and Watteau. In each case the act of replicating earlier artistic ideas does not hide the artist’s strong personality.

To illustrate practice and idea in Chapter 3, Rosenberg uses the classification system put forward by Dezallier d’Argenville in his eighteenth-century treatise, Abrégé de la vie des peintres separating drawings into five types: thoughts, finished drawings, studies, academies, and cartoons. Poussin used drawings as “thoughts,” as did Ingres and Fragonard, but rarely drew from the model. While David preferred the nude, male model—frequently using his students to pose—Ingres generally drew from the draped, female form. Rosenberg considers all of Watteau’s drawings as studies, but as for Fragonard, either all or none at all belong to this group. In his hierarchy of the arts, Dezallier situated drawings below paintings, but above prints, regarding them as the best way to train the eye and the mind of the connoisseur. In many ways, that practice has remained constant to this day. As thought-provoking as Dezallier’s categories are, the empirical evidence of the five drawn Ïuvres does not fit perfectly into this model. Perhaps this idea was more persuasive in performance than in the reading.

Chapter 4 on attribution and dating offers the most interesting and revelatory passages of the entire book on the problems and limits of knowledge for even such an expert eye and mind as Rosenberg’s. Initially, he concentrates on the landscape drawings of each of the five artists, considered in comparison with sheets by contemporaries. For Poussin, Rosenberg has adopted strict standards, rejecting many drawings accepted by such scholars as Blunt, Friedlaender, and Oberhuber. He approaches each of the remaining artists in turn, using specific examples to ferret out their authentic images. Here we watch Rosenberg at his most self-revelatory and modest, aware of the tremendous responsibility to stand against other authorities and to assert his vision of the essential elements of artistic voice and intention. About the process of attribution—"familiarity born of the daily handling" (140)—Rosenberg speaks eloquently. He investigates the minute details of drawings and brings to the science of art history a new basis for understanding.

In Chapter 5, Rosenberg addresses the fate of thousands of drawings: some were carefully saved by the artists or their heirs, while others were discarded with nary a thought. The attitude towards drawing may be ascribed to individual temperament and working method and to the possibilities for public exhibitions. Not available for Poussin and Watteau, the biennial salons offered the other three artists occasion for modern publicity. However, Fragonard mostly worked outside the Academy and David spent much of his time in contestation against it. Interestingly, of the five only Ingres really exemplifies the consummate academician.

There are some similarities in the five artistic trajectories toward fame and fortune. Each man started out poor, but considerably improved his financial position as his work became known. Their strategies for making money and spreading their fame included exploitation of printmaking as a peintre-graveur or through reproductive prints by others. Of the five, only Fragonard marketed his drawings actively and made money on both paintings and drawings, before his slide into oblivion. Over the course of his career, Poussin’s esteemed reputation caused the prices of his paintings to escalate. David made money too but, like Poussin, not from his drawings, while Watteau was indifferent to money until the end of his short life. In Rome and Florence, Ingres eked out a living with his wonderful pencil portrait drawings, but once back in Paris earned a comfortable living as a professor. In direct dissemination of their artistic ideas, neither Poussin, nor Watteau, nor Fragonard functioned as teachers but for legions of art students David and Ingres used drawings as their primary pedagogical tool.

In his final chapter, Rosenberg explores the corresponding terms of dessein/dessin. Each of the five artists used drawing for continuous reflection or mediation between the acts of thinking and painting. It functioned as “a means of expression and medium of transmission” (176). From the complementarity of design/drawing, Rosenberg moves to the opposition of disegno and colore. Poussin, the master of line, often drew on colored paper: an avowed practitioner of drawing, but also a sensitive colorist. Watteau worked coloristically in two or three chalks, but could make one singing line convey so much in shape and mood. Fragonard experimented with different drawing techniques and colored papers. In this debate between line and color, David and Ingres are always regarded as defenders of line. Yet, what mattered to each artist was the tool held in the hand and its potentialities in the creative process. The chasm between line and color was largely artificial for these masters.

The final question Rosenberg asks—why each artist drew—he answers definitively—to reach a better understanding and to make visible his own thoughts. Their styles differed, but in the act of drawing they sought a form of self-knowing. Drawings allow us to get closer to the individual master and search for his soul. Subsequently forgotten or neglected, these five French artists now can reclaim their rightful places in history, in no small part because of a lifetime’s work by Pierre Rosenberg.

In this book, so beautifully illustrated and so incisive in its analyses of individual works, Rosenberg professes his knowledge to both general and specialized audiences. Drawing experts will not be surprised by his pronouncements on many issues, but this comparative study is daring. Rarely does the reader see images by these five artists shoulder to shoulder, except in special circumstances like Rosenberg’s own 1972 catalogue of French master drawings in North American collections. But, in the Mellon lectures he goes beyond his earlier achievements, presenting both familiar and obscure drawings, pressing on difficult issues of attribution and chronology, and setting the proper contexts to assess strategies for making money. Rosenberg’s lifelong task has been to educate his public about French cultural patrimony. In this book he succeeds by convincing the reader of the importance of the artistic enterprise undertaken by these five master draughtsmen.

JoLynn Edwards
University of Washington, Bothell