Art lovers go Dutch

Raphael’s pupil Giulio Romano “always expressed his conceptions better in drawings than in finished work”. His sketches had “more vivacity, boldness and feeling” than his paintings, produced as they were in “all the heat and glow” of the initial creative impulse. So wrote the Renaissance art historian Giorgio Vasari in his celebrated Lives, first published in 1550.

It was this “heat and glow” that fascinated the great Dutch collector and scholar Frits Lugt (1884-1970), so it seems fitting that the European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf) at Maastricht, in the Netherlands, is celebrating its silver jubilee with a loan show devoted to his collection. This collectors’ paradise, arguably the greatest international art and antiques fair, which this year runs from March 16 to 25, will present some 48 drawings from Lugt’s collection.

It is perhaps little wonder that collectors such as Lugt have preferred the preparatory sketch to the finished work. Highly wrought works of art of any medium can be brought to such a pitch of technical perfection that it seems as if they have never been touched – let alone created – by a human hand. But intimate, initial draughts can offer a glimpse of genius. It might be the first flash of an idea jotted down in a few cursory strokes, or a detailed study, a bozzetto where a sculptor has manipulated wax or clay into bold approximate forms or exploited its softness and pliability to refine an expression or texture. Spontaneity, fluency and nuance rarely completely survive the translation into fresco, oil painting, marble or bronze.

Glazed ceramic detail by Jean Mayodon (early 20th century)

Lugt amassed several vast and extraordinary collections, the most important of which comprised some 7,000 master drawings, 30,000 prints and more than 40,000 artists’ letters. All cover some 600 years, with 16th- and 17th-century Dutch and Flemish masters predominant. The letters range from Dürer writing from Venice about the jealousy among his Italian colleagues to Rembrandt advising Constantijn Huygens on how to hang a painting.

Lugt was a precocious and self-taught art historian who was cataloguing his own collection of “rarities” at the age of eight, describing the Dutch drawings in the Rijksmuseum at 10, and working on an illustrated biography of Rembrandt at 15. Between 1901 and 1915 he worked for an Amsterdam auction house while also researching the origin and significance of collectors’ marks on drawings and prints. Subsequently he acted as an adviser and agent for collectors and began to buy for himself – as well as cataloguing the northern European drawings in the public museums of Paris.

Chandelier by Hervé van der Straeten (2009)

In 1935, his wife Jacoba Klever (1889-1969) inherited an immense fortune that enabled them to expand the collection and, ultimately, establish the Fondation Custodia in order to preserve it for posterity. Founded in Basel in 1947, it moved to Paris after the Lugts acquired the 18th-century Hôtel Turgot in Paris, in 1953. There, in association with the Dutch government, they established the Institut Néerlandais a decade later. The Fondation Custodia, housed in its courtyard, remains a study collection open only by appointment.

Ger Luijten, Fondation Custodia director and curator of the TEFAF show, has explored the various ways in which artists have used drawings, and his ingeniously wide-ranging selection groups them thematically. It launches with a compelling juxtaposition of two of the earliest and most celebrated sheets in the collection, by Leonardo da Vinci and Lorenzo di Credi. Both are drapery studies illustrating an early device for ensuring that the folds of fabric would not move while they were copied.

As Vasari describes it, Leonardo would make a model of a figure out of clay over which he would drape soft pieces of cloth dipped in clay, and then “set himself patiently to draw them”. Leonardo chose to work on prepared linen in black and white with the point of the brush and then to heighten the drawing with white body colour. Di Credi, who appears to have owned several of Leonardo’s drapery studies, has here used the infinitely delicate medium of silverpoint on a pinkish ground, adding grey-brown wash and white body colour.

Another section is made of repeated takes on the same or similar subjects from different angles. We find Guercino, for instance, producing five pen-and-ink studies for the Magdalen seated or kneeling below the cross, and a rare and beautiful drawing by Alvise Vivarini offering six studies of hands, all of which can be identified in his paintings. The Rubens maidservant executed in black and red chalks was used in no fewer than three different canvases.

It was common for artists to use members of their family or households as models, and here there are examples by Andrea del Sarto, Jan Cossiers, Ottavio Leoni and Carlo Dolci. Birds, animals and trees also appear, executed as staffage or as details for paintings. That great artists are not necessarily great draughtsmen, and vice-versa, is demonstrated by a sheet of studies of a dog lying down by Rembrandt’s pupil Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, a master of life studies in pen and ink.

One of the glories of the Lugt collection is that it embraces the work of minor or anonymous masters. The show closes, appropriately enough, with four drawings of artists at work. In one, by someone in Chardin’s circle, the subject is copying not nature but art, sitting on the ground in a cocked hat copying a painting – another essential part of an artist’s training.

‘The Director’s Choice: Master Drawings from the Fondation Custodia in Paris’, March 16-25,

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.