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A swan-like artist: David Ekserdjian on the Renaissance master Andrea del Sarto

Draughtsmanship was one of the artist's finest skills

This splendid volume is the catalogue of an exhibition first seen at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and currently at the Frick Collection, New York, but it is bound to remain a fundamental scholarly resource long after the show that inspired it has closed.

Andrea del Sarto was not only one of the most important Florentine artists of the 16th century, he was also one of the greatest of all Renaissance draughtsmen. A full-dress show devoted to Sarto’s paintings could never happen, even in Florence: he was a master of fresco, and moreover his use of wooden panels means few altarpieces or even smaller-scale easel paintings by him can travel. However, it is absolutely not the case that the emphasis here on his drawn oeuvre—with 50-odd drawings against four paintings, and a number of novelties—is a mere settling for second best. On the contrary, it is tempting to wonder if it is not his drawings that are his greatest achievements, as well as unquestionably revealing him at his most immediately lovable.

Arguably the most original aspect of Sarto’s drawing practice is the virtual absence of studies executed in pen. As a rule, by the 16th century Italian artists tended to employ pen (and wash) to think on paper—to devise their compositions and evolve the attitudes of individual figures. They then moved on to study the details of heads, hands, feet—not to mention the configuration and fall of draperies—in black or red chalk. Not so Sarto, who thinks but also refines in chalk. The result is that there is no sense of uniformity about his drawings, which range from the most spontaneous registrations of poses—especially with portraits sketched from life on the hoof, so to speak—to highly polished and substantial head studies, on the whole for religious subjects. Such studies must routinely have been drawn from models, but another remarkable feature of Sarto’s draughtsmanship is the way in which his drawings give every impression of recording the facial features of actual individuals, which are only minimally idealised in the finished works.

In addition to the opportunities afforded by being able to juxtapose groups of sheets for particular works in a loan exhibition, this book also goes into considerable—and utterly fascinating—detail concerning the revelations infra-red reflectography provides about what Sarto got up to beneath the final surfaces of his paintings. In the main, what meets the eye is all swan-like ease, but the infra-reds reveal a good deal of frantic paddling under the water in the form of major changes of mind. In their turn, these demonstrate the fact that at least some of Sarto’s drawings must have been made after the transfer of the cartoon, and indeed after the artist started to paint.

As stated above, Sarto worked in both black and red chalk, although he appears to have been fonder of the latter, and on at least one occasion used a combination of both. In his exemplary introduction, Julian Brooks makes a point of stressing that this contribution is a step in the right direction rather than a last word, and indeed what determined the choice of black or red chalk still remains a maddeningly elusive mystery. If only Sherlock Holmes had put his mind to its solution…

David Ekserdjian is professor of art at the University of Leicester

Andrea del Sarto: the Renaissance Workshop in Action is at the Frick Collection, New York, 7 October-10 January 2016

Andrea del Sarto: the Renaissance Workshop in Action

Julian Brooks, with Denise Allen and Xavier F. Salomon

Getty Publications, 264pp, $59 (hb)