the libyan sibyl

Artists’ Studies

Among my favorite works of art here are a good number of artist’s “studies” or drawings made in preparation for finished works (paintings, prints, sculpture etc…). 

I immediately think of Michelangelo’s terra-cotta sketch for the Libyan Sibyl on the Sistine…

Michelangelo was one of the greatest draftsmen of all time with an understanding of human anatomy and physiology that few artists might rival. This is clear from his anatomical studies…

Michelangelo, however, did make frequent use of distortions of the body for expressive purposes. The figure of the Virgin in the Pieta is quite a bit larger than that of Christ… 

… which allows the artist to place Christ in her lap without it appearing awkward. David’s hands are larger than they should be… 

… emphasizing the “weight” of the coming confrontation with Goliath and the stone he holds. 

The painting of the Libyan Sibyl is almost a “cubist” image portraying the various parts of the figure from various angles in a composite manner. Her toe, for which he clearly made careful and intentional studies, juts toward us. Her legs are seen in profile in the act of stepping away. Her back is turned toward us as she places the heavy tome down opposite us. The pose could only be taken by a contortionist… but the result is that it conveys an incredible sense of motion. Seated on a throne (which faces us) in which she has been reading, she now twists around and sets down her over-sized book on the podium behind her, and then steps forth daintily upon her toes like a ballerina, pirouetting away… Exit, Stage Left. As in the sculpture of the Pieta, the draperies in the Libyan Sibyl mask the anatomical distortions while further emphasizing the twisting motion. 

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I hope to keep this post active… and continue to add to it as I come upon further interesting sketches

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Peter Paul Rubens is another master draftsman. I have long adored this marvelous drawing of his first wife, Isabella Brandt, in which you can surely sense the twinkle in her eye and the mischievousness in her smile that the artist must have fallen in love with:

The drawing likely served as the model for more than a few portraits of the Rubens’ wife… 

-This brilliant portrait is perhaps my absolute favorite painting in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Rubens made an almost equally marvelous drawing of his second wife, Helena Fourment…

The drawing was likely employed in the artist’s Portrait of Helena in Her Wedding Gown (made some time after their wedding)…

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I initially came up with this notion for a thread on artists’ sketches after stumbling upon some of Alphonse Mucha’s drawings made in preparation for his series of muses (The Muses of Dance, Music, Painting, and Poetry):

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Incredibly a wealth of original drawings by the Netherlandish Renaissance artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, have survived. Many of these drawings are studies of the landscape. He likely employed elements of these later on in his paintings and prints:

These drawings have an energetic calligraphic manner and a rich sensitivity that is lost to a certain extent in the prints… engraved by other hands. Of course the warm sepia color makes them even more handsome.

One of the only prints to retain the calligraphic and gestural nature of Bruegel’s drawings is this early landscape… etched by the artist himself:

Bruegel’s drawings weren’t limited to landscape. Just as his prints and drawings often dealt with allegory and everyday life in his native Netherlands, so his drawings often dealt with the same. The Beekeepers has long struck me as a fascinating… almost “surreal” image… for all its mundane realism:

We his can truly compare drawings to the resulting prints and paintings with the famous image of Big Fish Eat Smaller Fish:

Then there is the sketch of the Netherlandish feast of Kermis filled with such exquisite little details…

… and the subsequent painting of the same subject:

And perhaps the finest example by the artist of a sketch directly linked to a subsequent “finished” work of art is this drawing of laborers harvesting under the August sun:

This sketch would serve as the model for the engraving, Summer:

… and it would also serve as a source of inspiration for the marvelous painting of the same theme (Summer) AKA The Harvesters… one of my favorite paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

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Another master of sketches is of course Rembrandt. He is one of the few artists among the old masters whose drawings often have an Asian-like calligraphic manner:

There are two drawings by Rembrandt that immediately come to mind that were almost certainly employed as sketches in preparation for finished prints and paintings. The first of these is a sketch upon the theme of Christ preaching unto his followers:

This likely served in preparation for two of Rembrandt’s prints upon the same theme…

… including the so-called “Hundred Guilder Print”:

The second sketch is a fascinating little drawing…

It was made after Raphael’s Portrait of Baldasar Castiglione:

Interestingly enough, Raphael’s masterful portrait was inspired by his study of the composition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa:

Rembrandt would employ the ideas from Raphael in his own self portraits… including this lovely etching:

This etching suggests that Rembrandt may also have been aware of Titian’s famous Portrait of a Man with a Blue Sleeve:

Rembrandt’s later Self Portrait (age 34) almost suggests a merger of ideas taken from both Raphael and Titian:

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Albrecht Dürer

Along with the masters of the Italian Renaissance, the German Renaissance painter and print-maker, Albrecht Dürer was one of the most brilliant draftsmen of Western art history.

Dürer’s importance as a draftsman dates back to his youth, when at age 13 he sketched this self-portrait:

… one of the earliest acknowledged self-portraits. 

In his early 20s, Dürer made his first journey to Italy where he was exposed to the art of Greco-Roman classicism including (almost certainly) the Apollo Belvedere:

Dürer made several sketches based loosely on the Apollo Belvedere…

Eventually he would alter the pose of Apollo and of the figure of Diana who originally turned her back to us resulting in the marvelous engraving of Apollo and Diana (1502):

Dürer became more ambitious, and began to transform the classical Apollo into the Christian Adam, replacing Apollo’s solar orb with the apple from the Garden of Eden:

Dürer made several studies of Eve prior to hitting upon the image for the final print:

The final Eve was almost certainly modeled after a medieval sculpture of Adam and Eve that the artist also saw in Italy:

Eve’s hair in Dürer’s engraving (as well as her Roman nose) is undoubtedly based upon this work. 

In his mid-30s, Dürer made a second journey to Italy. Among the works he created there was the painting, Christ Among the Church Doctors:

This painting featured a brilliant variety of facial types… and an even more brilliant variety of hand gestures. Dürer made a number of studies in preparation for this painting… including studies of hands…

… the face of an angel…

… and the face of Christ:

The two head studies… that of Christ and the second of an angel (top of post) … both on blueish toned paper… were both obviously once a single drawing:

The head of the angel was not employed in the painting of  Christ Among the Church Doctors, but remains one of the artist’s most exquisite drawings.

Over the years, Dürer would produce several prints and paintings upon the theme of Saint Jerome:

Saint Jerome in the Wilderness (painting-c.1495):

Saint Jerome in the Wilderness (engraving-c.1496):

Saint Jerome in the Wilderness (drypoint etching-1512)

Saint Jerome in his Study (engraving-1514):

Dürer’s drawing of the Head of an Old Man (c. 1521)… shown leaning on his elbow and looking down was almost certainly a study of Jerome in his study… reading. It is also most certainly one of Dürer’s most exquisite drawings that exhibits his mastery of the calligraphic line and his ability to use line to suggest a broad variety of textures (as already seen in his print Adam and Eve):

The delicious curls and spirals of “Jerome’s” beard call to mind the churning waters as found in Leonardo’s drawings of the Tempest:

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I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance. Sojourner Truth (1864). Albumen print carte-de-viste from the ICP’s Cowin Collection of African-American Vernacular Photography

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), born Isabella Baumfree to a family of slaves in Ulster County, New York, escaped with her daughter in 1826, a year before New York state’s emancipation. After living in a commune, she converted to Christianity, changed her name in 1843, and became an itinerant preacher. The publication of the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, recorded in 1850 by her friend Olive Gilbert, and “Sojourner Truth: The Libyan Sibyl,” written by Harriet Beecher Stowe for the Atlantic Monthly in 1863, raised Truth’s national profile. She toured with abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison and earned money from these speaking engagements as well as from the sale of images. As demonstrated by the inclusion of text on her cartes-de-visite, Truth actively controlled the dissemination of her image as a proper, educated, middle-class woman to support herself and her activist work. An ardent feminist, Truth often had herself represented proudly engaged in “women’s work,” such as knitting.

Michelangelo and Mucha?

Michelangelo was without a doubt one of the most influential artists in the history of Western Art. His paintings and sculpture had a pronounced impact upon the work of his peers and successors for several generations. This can be clearly seen in the work of Raphael…

Sebastino del Piombo…

Daniele da Volterra…

Giulio Clovio…

Pellegrino Tebaldi…

Vincenzo Danti…

Francesco Salviati…

Rosso Fiorentino…

Bronzino…

Allesandro Allori…

Tiziano Vecellio (Titian)…

Tintoretto…

Juan Fernández Navarrete…

Frans Floris…

Hendrick Goltzius…

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio…

Domenico Zampieri…

Sir Peter Paul Rubens…

The Rococo and Neo-Classicism witnessed a decline in interest in Michelangelo’s work which would have been seen as too dramatic… even “vulgar” for the tastes of the time. With the onset of Romanticism, there was a “Ri-conoscere”… a rediscovery and acknowledgement of Michelangelo’s genius. We clearly see the Italian Renaissance master’s influence in the works of Delacroix…

Théodore Géricault…

Henri Fuseli…

William Blake…

Jean–Baptiste Carpeaux…

Auguste Rodin…

Michelangelo’s influence continued well into the 20th century. The grandiose superhuman forms… and the explosive movement or dynamism of Michelangelo’s figures can be seen echoed in the work of many Modernist artists… including Aristide Maillol…

Henri Matisse…

Diego Rivera…

Fernand Henri Léger…

Max Beckmann…

… and on through Lucian Freud…

… and contemporaries such as Daniel Ludwig:

I never thought in the least, however, of Alphonse Mucha as one of those artists that was influenced by Michelangelo… in any shape or form. That was until today. In my own paintings I am currently making extensive use of pattern and decoration. Gustav Klimt and Alphonse Mucha… as well as Botticelli, this stunning painting by Robert Burns:

… Phoebe Traquair…

and other artists are among those I frequently look at. As I browsed through a book on Mucha today I was suddenly struck by these two paintings:

As I looked at these two paintings I was suddenly struck by how much they seem to echo Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl:

Mucha’s print, Topaz, from the series on Gemstones even seemed to pick up on Michelangelo’s use of color in the draperies. Reversed…

… the similarity seems even more obvious. 

Of course it could all just be coincidence… the parallels that I see could all but be in my mind’s eye. But then again… thinking on Michelangelo… I was struck by another manner in which his paintings share a resemblance to the graphics of Mucha. Both artists have little interest in placing the figure in a believable realistic space. Unlike Raphael, Titian, Leonardo, or most other painters of the late Renaissance, Michelangelo has little use for landscape or background. He remains a sculptor in the sense that the human form… its motion or gesture… is all. Where Rembrandt speaks through the face… and the suggestion of emotions comes through facial expression…

… Michelangelo speaks through the gestures of the human body… almost as if he were a choreographer and his super-human figures dancers:

Mucha shares this expression through the movement of the human body with his great Renaissance predecessor. I have long been struck by the manner in which Mucha’s works convey movement… almost the elegance of dance… albeit far more “feminine” than that of Michelangelo. Of course he employs far more decorative elements… patterns, flowers, draperies, and halos…

Certainly, I would not begin to suggest that Mucha is anywhere near the same level of artistic genius as Michelangelo. What I am suggesting is that I see a shared interest in expression through the movement of the human body first and foremost… something that I strive for in my own work as well.

The Libyan Sibyl detail, 1511, Cappella Sistina, Vatican

Michelangelo

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On the side walls of the chapel, five prophets alternate with the same number of sibyls, so that each prophet is paired with a sibyl on the opposite wall: the Delphic Sibyl and Joel, Isaiah, and the Erythraean Sibyl, the Cumaean Sibyl and Ezekiel, Daniel and the Persian Sibyl, the Libyan Sibyl, and Jeremiah. This studied parallelism alludes both to the theme of the universality of the message of Redemption and the idea of the perfect concordance of the Revelation in the Judaic world and in the pagan one. wga.hu

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From wiki:  The Libyan Sibyl, named Phemonoe, was the prophetic priestess presiding over the Zeus Ammon Oracle (Zeus represented with the horns of Ammon) at Siwa Oasis in the Libyan Desert.

The word Sibyl comes (via Latin) from the ancient Greek word sibylla, meaning prophetess. There were many Sibyls in the ancient world, but the Libyan Sibyl, in Classical mythology, Lamia, foretold the “coming of the day when that which is hidden shall be revealed.”

In Pausanias Description of Greece, the sibyl names her parents in her oracles:

I am by birth half mortal, half divine; An immortal nymph was my mother, my father an eater of grain; On my mother’s side of Idaean birth, but my fatherland was red Marpessus, sacred to the Mother, and the river Aidoneus. (Pausanias 10.12.3)

The Greeks say she was the daughter of Zeus and Lamia, a Libyan queen loved by Zeus. Euripides mentions the Libyan Sibyl in the prologue of the Lamia. The Greeks further state that she was the first woman to chant oracles, she lived most of her life in Samos, and that the name Sibyl was given her by the Libyans.

Serapion, in his epic verses, says that the Sibyl, even when dead ceased not from divination. And he writes that, what proceeded from her into the air after her death, was what gave oracular utterances in voices and omens; and on her body being changed into earth, and the grass as natural growing out of it, whatever beasts happening to be in that place fed on it exhibited to men an accurate knowledge of futurity by their entrails. He thinks also, that the face seen in the moon is her soul.

Plutarch tells the story of Alexander the Great after founding Alexandria, he marched to Siwa Oasis and the sibyl is said to have confirmed him as both a divine personage and the legitimate Pharaoh of Egypt.