by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Enduring Appeal of Metalpoint

By Roderick Conway Morris
London 22 October 2015
Trustees of the British Museum, London
'Standing Woman,' 1460-69, by Fra Filippino Lippi.



Leonardo da Vinci's 'Bust of a Warrior,' a pyrotechnic graphic performance by the young artist, is now one of his most famous drawings. It was inspired by a lost cast metal relief by Leonardo's master, Verrocchio, and the lines of the drawing are inscribed on the paper in metal — for this is one of the artist's works in silverpoint.

The drawing is one of the treasures of the British Museum, which has the most important collection in the world of drawings in metalpoint — in silver, gold, lead and other metals — and which is now staging, in association with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, its first exhibition of nearly 100 works, stretching from the early Renaissance to the present day.

The exhibition, 'Drawing in Silver and Gold: From Leonardo to Jasper Johns,' is curated by Hugo Chapman, Giulia Bartrum and An Van Camp. It continues at the British Museum until Dec. 6.

Metalpoint takes its name from the stylus used to create the image, a silver one being by far the most common. To make an image by this method, the surface of the paper is covered with a white or tinted ground of a wet preparation typically composed of bone-ash, resin and pigments, which then dries into a workable veneer. This surface has to be slightly abrasive, so that when the artist runs the stylus over the surface, a thin layer of metal is abraded from the end of it, making a mark.

The techniques of drawing in this manner offer particular challenges, but the results are distinctive and rewarding. Such images are difficult to erase or smudge, and they create effects that are at the same time precise, clear, subtle, luminous and evanescent, making this an ideal medium for reproducing and preserving the finest observations of textures, flesh tones and minute gradations of light. And, as the works on display demonstrate, they can retain a remarkable freshness, even centuries after they were executed.

Before the introduction of graphite pencils, metalpoint had the advantage of allowing an artist to record images without inks and paints. Prepared sheets were often bound in handy, portable notebooks as long ago as the early 16th century.

Drawing in metals dates back to antiquity, but the earliest examples we have are from the Middle Ages. Metalpoint was used on wood and vellum but only became common with the introduction of paper from the Arab world. The first paper mills in Italy appeared in the 1200s, but it was the mass production of cheaper paper in the 15th century that allowed the medium to develop and thrive.

Many of the best-known drawings in silverpoint date from the Italian Renaissance. In the second half of the 15th century it became a standard tool for teaching drawing in the workshops of Verrocchio and other Florentine masters, and the medium in which some of the finest graphic works of this period were created.

In the first section of the exhibition, Leonardo's 'Bust of a Warrior' is flanked by other studies by da Vinci, and works by Pisanello, Benozzo Gozzoli, Filippino Lippi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Lorenzo di Credi, Pietro Perugino and Raphael.

Yet the flowering of silverpoint in Italy, though brilliant, was relatively short. Leonardo schooled his students in Milan in silverpoint, but the tradition faded after his death. After going to Rome, Raphael produced his last silverpoint work in 1515 and did not pass on his mastery of the medium to his students.

The next two sections of the show — devoted to the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland — reveal that it was north of the Alps that silverpoint achieved its greatest and longest efflorescence during the Renaissance. It achieved a second and scarcely less glorious revival in the late 16th and 17th centuries.

In the Netherlands — which then included today's Belgium, Luxembourg and part of northern France — silverpoint was well established by the early 15th century and became a central practice in the studios of the artistic giants of the age, Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden and their colleagues.

It was used both to make preparatory sketches for paintings, especially portraits, and to record finished works for future reference and reproduction. It proved indispensable for the former as a means of making quick sketches of sitters to be worked up later and no less so for the latter, given the extraordinary precision that could be achieved in silverpoint in almost photographically rendering every detail of a painting.

Among the works here are 'Portrait of an Unknown Woman,' the only known silverpoint work by van der Weyden, and also the only surviving ones by Petrus Christus and Dieric Bouts.

In Germany, Hans Holbein the Elder, who likely had visited the Netherlands during his journeyman years before 1490, enthusiastically took up the technique. Some 150 silverpoint drawings by him have come down to us.

But it was Albrecht Dürer who was to become the most prominent and influential exponent of the medium. More than 80 of Dürer's surviving 970 drawings are in metalpoint. He almost certainly learned the technique from his goldsmith father, but he was clearly also inspired by his trip to Italy from 1505 to 1507, when he was able to see for himself the works of Italian metalpoint masters, notably Lippi and Raphael.

Dürer was a primary influence on Hendrick Goltzius, who revived metalpoint in the late 16th century. Of his 100 surviving drawings, a fifth are in metalpoint. Many of them are on display here.

Goltzius's most celebrated successor in the use of metalpoint was Rembrandt van Rijn, three of whose metalpoint notebooks survived.

Renewed interest in the Renaissance during the 19th century and the first English translation of Cennino Cennini's 15th-century 'The Craftsman's Handbook,' with its instructions on metalpoint, stimulated a revival of the medium in Britain. A pioneer was the artist William Dyce, followed by the Pre-Raphaelites William Holman Hunt and Edward Burne-Jones, all of whom are represented in the exhibition.

The British Museum's exceptional collection of historic metalpoint works played a major part in inspiring this trend. The French-born Alphonse Legros, professor at London's Slade School of Fine Art in the 1880s and an influential advocate of metalpoint, was himself an outstanding practitioner, as is borne out here by his 'Head of a Horse from the Parthenon Marbles' and a drawing of an Egyptian mummified cat.

The revival has continued unabated until the present day, as illustrated by works on display here by artists as diverse as Otto Dix, Avigdor Arikha, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman and Susan Schwalb. Ms. Schwalb's commitment to the medium — using a gamut of metals including silver, bronze, copper, brass, steel, lead and aluminum — has led one commentator to describe her as 'the Pied Piper of silverpoint.'

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023