The Encounter at the National Portrait Gallery gives rise to moments of disability history


Displaying portrait drawings by some of the outstanding masters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery explores the creative encounter between individual artists and sitters. Charles Josefson reviews the exhibition and describes an intriguing encounter with a disabled man of the sixteenth century, as portrayed by the great Bolognese master Annibale Carracci.

The drawing of the hanged man caused me to smile. Of course, though the drawing was executed from life — it being, in fact, one of the earliest surviving examples of a figure study from life — the youth with his hands bound behind his back is clearly not in reality hung from a gibbet, but stood: the young studio apprentice or garzone posing for his master Pisanello (c. 1395 – c. 1455), the medallist, fresco and panel painter.

We see the lad’s back, his lean frame, his snazzy, bowl-shaped haircut. We imagine his boredom, his fidgeting: it is only a quick sketch, his figure faintly outlined in leadpoint, but teenagers will bore easily. Maybe he pulls faces; pokes his tongue out at a fellow apprentice.

It is a wonderful drawing, likely produced to provide a small detail in the background of a fresco, St George and the Princess, at the church of Sant’ Anastasia, Verona (c.1433-8). It is one of the 48 Old Master drawings, from various British collections, that make up the exhibition, The Encounter, at the National Portrait Gallery. An exhibition which provides a satisfyingly compact history of the art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, spanning the Renaissance and the Baroque, exploring the creative encounter between sitter and artist: Gozzoli, Ghirlandaio, Parmigianino, Pontormo, Perugino, Bernini, and the Flemish artist Jordaens are all included.

Portrait drawing of a man wearing a hat

The Artist’s Shoemaker by Carlo Dolci c.1630 © The Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth

I had anticipated being impressed, and was duly wowed by the draughtsmanship of Albrecht Dürer; or that masterful documenter of the Tudor court, Hans Holbein the Younger; or Filippino Lippi — the scandalous spawn of the painter-friar Fra Filippo and a young nun Lucrezia Buti — here represented by his black-chalk portrait of an elderly man, wrinkled, with wearied, pouched eyes, thought to be the sculptor Mino da Fiesole. But, what is more, I had the unforeseen pleasure of first encountering the Florentine artist Carlo Dolci (1616 – 1686), who sketched his characterful, bat-eared, half-smiling shoemaker — perhaps in payment for his capable cobbling. Next time I visit the National Gallery, I shall search out Dolci’s reputedly outstanding Adoration of the Kings, which includes his self-portrait.

I only have one quibble (for I found the exhibition thoroughly enjoyable): the subtitle of the exhibition reads, Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt, but a single drawing from each, a red chalk sketch of a male nude from the former and a page of studies from the latter, make for slender bookends. Though room is found for three, to my mind unmemorable drawings by Leonhard Beck (c. 1480 – 1542): painter and designer of woodcuts in Augsburg, Germany, I learn. (Was he included to provide balance between north and south? Or as a curator’s pet?) And there is a red chalk study of a girl attributed to an amateur artist from Harlem, Leendert van der Cooghen (1632-1681). The three principal lenders to the exhibition are the British Museum, the trustees of Chatsworth, and the Queen’s Collection: Her Majesty alone has a wealth of Leonardos which might have been loaned.

In one section of the exhibition, the one I wish to concentrate on, Drawing among Friends: The Carracci Studio, actually the most arresting grouping, we encounter disability: a poignant, red chalk, red wash portrait of a man with a spinal deformity, shown half-length by Annibale Carracci (1560–1609); the work part of the great Devonshire collection of Old Master drawings.  So vivid, so clearly drawn from life, the boy, his cheek scrunched, his body twisted, peers over his shoulder, through the centuries looking toward us, for a moment meeting our gaze directly. As if closed in a speech bubble, a heart-wringing declaration of despair, there is an inscription to the right of the boy (not by the artist’s hand), which reads, “Non so se Dio m’aiuta” or, translated, “I don’t know if God will help me.”

Drawing of a young man in uniform

Giulio Pedrizzano, The Lutenist Mascheroni by Annibale Carracci c.1593-4 Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Sons to a tailor (like the aforementioned Dolci), Annibale and his elder brother Agostino (1557 – 1602) were tutored in their painting craft by their cousin Ludovico (1555 – 1619). Annibale Carracci, with his naturalistic early works like The Bean Eater, his frescoes of mythological subjects like the ceiling decoration for Palazzo Farnese, and his elevation of genre and landscape subjects, (heralding Domenichino, Poussin, and Claude), reignited Italian art, cutting a new path away from the sober Caravaggisti and the showy, pastel-hued artifice of the Mannerists. The legacy of the Carracci would continue to be felt throughout the seventeenth century, in Bologna with the likes of Guido Reni (1575 – 1642) and Guercino (1591 – 1666), and far beyond, swelling the effulgent imaginations of Rubens and Benini. The academy of the Carracci, the Accademia dei Desiderosi (“Academy of the Desirous”), was one of the first to be founded in Italy, attracting artists and intellectuals alike.

Two drawings by Annibale Carracci, two attributed to him, and one attributed to the School of Carracci, feature in the exhibition. One of the two convinced Carracci portraits, a masterclass in sprezzatura handling of pen and ink, swift yet precise — the picture of the advertising poster — depicts the lutenist Giulio Pedrizzano, known as Mascheroni, who fixes the viewer with his rather quizzical, but charismatic gaze.

The Pedrizzano portrait offers us a window into the urbane, clubbable Carracci workshop, where, as their early biographer, the Bolognese Count, Carlo Cesare Malvasia noted, “there was always so much joking, wit, gossip, and lively exchange that the difficulties of the discipline seemed lightened by the constant merriment and was scarcely noted.”

As with all three Carracci cousins, Annibale, himself a taciturn, shy, unkempt man, loved — lived! — to draw; his sketching was incessant, obsessive: sketches preparatory for grand fresco cycles and altarpieces, or simply what caught his eye on the streets. His drawings in red chalk often recall those by Correggio, whom all three Carracci admired.

Seeing Correggio’s work at Parma in 1580, Annibale wrote to his cousin Ludovico: “I like this directness so much, and I like this purity which is real not verisimilar, and natural not contrived or forced… I don’t know how to say it, but I know how to go about doing it, and that’s enough.”

The seventeenth-century art historian Giovanni Pietro Bellori tells how the thieves who robbed the father were identified when the precocious Annibale drew their portraits. Malvasia remarked: “They ate and drew at the same time, bread in one hand and chalk or charcoal in the other.”

Sepia drawing of a young man with a spinal impairment

Study of a Young Man, by Annibale Carracci, mid 1580s The Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth

Bellori wrote of Annibale Carracci’s ability to depict, “the shape of natural things… with a praised talent for expressing a certain spirit and mind with just a few lines.” Such talent is intensely evidenced in his portrayal of the disabled boy. Who was this boy? A beggar, as one would presume? One of the numberless, nameless, unheeded poor of that time? All we can know is what the masterful marks of Annibale Carracci tell us: the boy’s nakedness; the lean musculature of his body; the texture of the hair; the furrowing of his brow; his haunting gaze; his pathos, so absorbingly spirited.

Later, the pathos of this sketch would pervade Annibale’s own life. Once he had gained the summit of his success — his frescoes for the Farnese palace; the grandest accomplished since the Sistine Chapel — he fell precipitously into the depths of despair around 1605; suffering some illness. Could it have been a stroke, as some have speculated? Or else some sort of breakdown?

In a letter dated April 1606, Cardinal Odoardo Farnese complains of Annibale’s “heavy melancholic humour”. Was his decline a response to his patron’s callous behaviour? Constantly mocking, Cardinal Odoardo paid the paltry sum of 500 pieces of gold for Annibale’s masterwork, which were brought to his room on a saucer.

Or else, could this melancholia have been brought on by the collapse of his relationship with Agostino? The brothers quarrelling came to a head at the Palazzo Farnese and Agostino left Rome. Annibale complained in a letter to Ludovico of his brother’s “intolerable pretentiousness”, always interrupting work to discourse with courtiers and learned gentlemen on the scaffold.

The brothers seem to have been antithetical in their temperament, as a famous anecdote illustrates. Agostino trowelled extravagant praise on the statue of Laocoön and His Sons and chided Annibale for his silence. Whereupon Annibale turned to the wall and drew the sculptural group perfectly from memory, quipping, “We other painters must speak with our hands”.

Whatever the cause, Annibale’s students could not stir him. He would not speak; his memory lapsed. He made cartoons and etchings, but would not paint another picture. The great man, this virtuosic draughtsman, died in penury at the age of 48 in 1609, his nephew Antonio arranging for him to be buried near Raphael within the Pantheon in Rome.

If you take the least pleasure in Old Master drawings, catch this exhibition while you can. It is a rich, but easy digested treat. The Encounter runs at the National Portrait Gallery until 22 October 2017.