First in Line: Preparatory Drawings for Paintings in the Collection
The eight drawings and watercolors on view here are preparatory studies for finished figure paintings in the Museum’s collection. They provide an opportunity to consider how individual artists worked their way toward their ultimate compositions. Each drawing’s degree of “finish”—the level of detail and approximation of the final composition—indicates the extent to which the painter followed his preparatory work closely or continued to alter forms during the painting process.
The practice of compiling figure “studies,” in which artists rehearsed and developed their initial ideas on paper, evolved during the Renaissance in Europe. This process was more rigidly prescribed by the end of the eighteenth century, by which time leading art academies trained students in a rigorous routine of extensive preparatory sketching in a crayon medium (pencil, charcoal, or chalk) preceding the laying of brush to canvas. American artists adopted the practice by the early nineteenth century, when the first formal art academies were founded in this country. After the Civil War, the increasing number of Americans who sought their training in Europe adopted the more rigorous version of the “academic method” already established there.
Academic figure drawings were usually rendered in working sessions with a model during which artists recorded a variety of postures and attitudes. Figure painters who worked in a detailed, realist mode often produced highly developed and closely detailed drawings. The process began to shift for American modernists, at work after 1900, whose drawings are often far broader in nature and were frequently superseded by changes executed directly on the final canvas. For practitioners of abstract art, the preparatory drawing process often was the stage in which they made the transition from recognizable figural forms to compositional shapes.