Drawing on the male nude

A rarefied new show at The Morgan Library & Museum captures the “Power and Grace” of art historical study in the works of Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens.

When we think of Peter Paul Rubens, we think ‘Rubenesque’ — voluptuous nymphs and goddesses, their pearly, dimpled flesh offset by undulating garments, or the lack thereof.

But Rubens (1577-1640) was nothing if not an equal opportunity artist, as it were. He believed in studying the art that preceded him, particularly that of the Greco-Roman world with its emphasis on the heroic male nude that has dominated art history, and he encouraged protégés like Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens — who worked in his studio in Antwerp from 1617 to ’20 — to do the same. The results included studies and preparatory drawings of the male as well as female figure — many of them exquisite masterworks in their own right. 

Now 22 of these works have come together for a rarefied show at The Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan, “Power and Grace:  Drawings by Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens,” on view through April 29.

Anthony van Dyck’s “Study for the Dead Christ” (circa 1635-40), black chalk heightened with white chalk on gray-blue paper. The Morgan Library & Museum. Photograph by Steven H. Crossot.

“The Morgan is particularly well-suited to tell the fascinating story of the intersection of these three artists in works on paper,” says Colin B. Bailey, director of the museum, once the home of financier and art collector J. Pierpont Morgan. “Its collection of drawings by Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens is unparalleled in the United States. Rubens, the teacher, cast a long shadow on all who studied with him. Nevertheless, Van Dyck and Jordaens, while acknowledging their debt to Rubens, would develop their own characteristic techniques and become renowned masters in their own right.”

During his years in Italy (1600-08), Rubens would immerse himself not only in ancient sculpture but in the drawings of Leonardo and the work of Michelangelo — all of which led to a fascination with human anatomy. Rubens’ “An Ecorché Study of the Legs of a Male Nude, with a Subsidiary Study of the Right Leg” (circa 1600-05) tips his hat to Leonardo with its exposed musculature, captured in pen and brown ink. Such studies served Rubens well in the rapturous “Seated Male Youth” (circa 1613), one of The Morgan’s signature works and one of the most celebrated drawings of the male nude in art history. Drawn from a live model and influenced by a Girolamo Muziano drawing, “Seated Male Youth” is actually a study for the figure of Daniel in Rubens’ “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” (circa 1614-16), an oil on canvas that is a popular highlight of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. In some ways, the Daniel of the drawing is superior to that of the painting. Standing before the actual painting, as we did recently, you can’t help but think that the “Technicolor” of the painting — it’s like a Cecil B. DeMille production — and cast of supporting characters (those circling, fang-baring lions) at once heighten Daniel’s drama and diminish him. In the painting, his clenched-handed entreaty to God is a bit theatrical. (And anyway, we know he’s going to be saved.)

Whereas in the drawing, you have the pure distillation of the communion with the divine — head tilted upward, mouth slack, hands clenched in prayer only to tense and reveal male muscle, exquisitely molded by black chalk heightened with white chalk on light gray paper.

“Seated Male Youth” underscores the idea that in drawing, the medium really is the message. Everything matters, not just the way the artist poses the figure and uses line but his choice of materials, the way the materials interact with one another and even the kind of paper he selects.

There are few greater examples of this than Van Dyck’s stunning “Study for the Dead Christ” (circa 1635-40), a preparatory drawing for his painting “Lamentation of Christ.” Working from a nude model to observe the natural state of the body — just as Rubens did — Van Dyck (1599-1641) used black chalk, heightened by white, on gray-blue paper to capture the spectral effect of lifelessness. But because this is an artwork by one who had studied the Italian masters during his stay in Italy (circa 1621-27), “Study for the Dead Christ” isn’t merely about what it means to be dead. It’s about what it means to be dead beautifully.

Unlike Rubens and Van Dyck, Jordaens (1593-1678) never studied in Italy. His works have an earthiness — a power, if you will, to borrow from the show’s title — that contrasts with Van Dyck’s refinement, or grace (and Rubens balance of the two). But Jordaens did take Rubens’ advice about studying Greco-Roman sculpture and working from a live model, as evinced in his “Study of a Male Nude Seen from Behind” (circa 1617-20), done in black, red and white chalk on light brown paper. 

Jordaens rendered the thickset model’s back as a landscape of dunes and gorges. The work is a tribute to the power — if not the grace — of the imagination.

For more, visit themorgan.org.

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