MADRID — Until the 20th century, if you wanted to become a professional painter, sculptor, or printmaker, you had to learn to draw first. And until the early 17th century, learning to draw meant entering an artist’s workshop — often as a child — copying the master’s sketches and drawing from plaster casts and live models. Students drew under the supervision and authority of the master. But all of that changed in 1608, when the Italian painter and printmaker Odoardo Fialetti published the first instructional drawing guide, or drawing book. Fialetti’s book enabled people to learn to draw without the aid of a master, tutor, or fine arts academy. A new exhibition, The Master of Paper: Drawing Books from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Centuries at Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado, explores how this and other drawing books revolutionized the study of drawing and spread it to new places throughout Europe.
There were predecessors to Fialetti’s drawing book. For instance, Albrecht Dürer’s 1528 treatise on drawing and Andreas Versalius’s 1543 anatomy book offered artists insight into the human figure. But drawing books that broke down the human body in full-page, straightforward illustrations were more affordable, widely circulated, and practical than previous instructional materials. Also known as manuals of principles, they consisted of engravings and etchings by master artists, sometimes accompanied by texts on technique and style. Because of their fragile construction, thin paper covers, simple binding, and intensive use, well-conserved drawing books are hard to come by these days, and rarely studied. However, the Prado has assembled over 100 examples of drawing books and the sketches they inspired across three centuries. The majority are from the museum’s own library, which houses one of the world’s most important collections of this often-overlooked field.
By the end of the Renaissance, the ability to draw was a prized sign of social status. Fialetti’s book and others like it democratized the practice of drawing, allowing aspiring artists to learn at home and at their own pace. Drawing books spread like wildfire through the region: soon Flemish, French, and Spanish versions emerged that looked to the Italian originals, but added regional touches. For example, in 1629 Flemish publisher Pieter de Jode swapped figures from Agostino Carracci’s 1609 book for heads and limbs inspired by Peter Paul Rubens (who published his own drawing book in 1640). The most successful drawing books were reprinted decade after decade, and some were so popular that pirated editions were produced.
Drawing books promoted their creators’ artworks across borders, and established artistic lineages. The Master of Paper features anonymous Spanish, French, and Flemish sketches based on the Spanish painter José de Ribera’s 1622 designs, which in turn are indebted to Leonardo and Giovan Bernardino Azzolino’s influence. Additional manuals quote from works by Renaissance masters like Raphael and Guido Reni. The sketches made from these and other drawing books were viewed as simple daily exercises, and were not intended to be kept or displayed. However, they attest to the popularity of drawing and the styles typical of these books.
Etching and engraving are precise, multi-step processes. They’re fitting mediums for these systematic drawing guides, which emphasize repetition and accuracy over exploration or expression. That said, the books’ creators kept aesthetics in mind. Bulging eyes, gaping mouths, warts, wrinkles, and other disembodied expressions or body parts are arranged in elaborate configurations that are at once delightful and disconcerting. Male and female figures appear equally across the pages, presenting both as valid subjects of study. And María del Carmen Saiz’s 1816 drawing book — the only one by a woman — is a reminder of how these books might have made drawing more accessible to women across Europe, even if their creations remain largely anonymous or forgotten.
The exhibition also connects drawing books to handwriting manuals, which began to circulate in Italy a century before drawing books. These manuals taught calligraphy in a piecemeal fashion — starting with letters, then moving to words and, lastly, phrases. Drawing books followed this model. Students moved from the detail to the whole, drawing facial features, then torsos, then complete human figures. Special attention was paid to hands and eyes, which were seen as the primary tools of the art trade and symbols of hard work and careful observation. And like calligraphy, drawing books disseminated ideals of beauty and proportion across Europe from the 17th to the 19th centuries, establishing international norms of style and skill.
The ancient Greek painter Apelles once said that “not a day should pass without drawing.” The drawing books that emerged in Italy 400 years ago allowed generations of amateurs and artists to do just that.
The Master of Paper: Drawing Books from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Centuries continues at the Museo Nacional del Prado (Calle Ruiz de Alarcón 23, Madrid, Spain) through February 2, 2020.