John Ruskin once addressed a group of young art students on the nature of drawing. He explained that “a person who had learned to draw well found something to interest him in the least thing and the farthest-off thing; in the lowest thing and the humblest thing.” The Cleveland Museum of Art’s latest collaboration with the Albertina museum in Vienna, “Tales of the City: Drawing in the Netherlands from Bosch to Bruegel,” gathered a large and impressive collection of drawings from Netherlandish artists that gave a sense of what Ruskin meant.1

The Netherlands, under the control of Habsburg Spain in the sixteenth century, was located at the crossroads of Western Europe. Sitting between England, France, and Germany, its trade network reached from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. This centrality provided for a large population and vast wealth, and Dutch cities became focal points for artistic creation and patronage. Churches, guilds, and confraternities all paid handsomely for artists to adorn their meeting places, and the growing class of wealthy merchants bought large amounts of art for their burgeoning private collections. The first permanent market for art was established in Antwerp in the middle of the fifteenth century, and artists flocked to the city. 

Hieronymus Bosch, The Tree Man, ca. 1500–10, Pen and light and dark brown ink on paper, Albertina, Vienna. © The Albertina Museum, Vienna.

The Netherlands was also at another kind of crossroads, that of faith. The Catholic Church in the Netherlands was slowly losing ground to growing Protestant beliefs, splitting the country along religious boundaries and raising new questions about the role images played in civic and religious life. 

Among the first things the viewer saw upon entering the gallery was a few small ricordi. These drawings are copies or studies of works in another artistic medium, and it is easy to discern with their economy of line and half-finished figures that these works had a limited purpose. Other introductory drawings, made before 1500, are identifiably medieval, focusing heavily on the figures of the Madonna and Christ. 

The exhibition then progressed from the pious world of medieval iconography to the divisive imagination of the early modern period. The Tree Man, an early sixteenth-century drawing, startlingly depicts a giant creature with the face of a man, the body of a bird, and the legs of a tree; he is adorned by a vase for a hat and boats for feet. The transition from those early copies to this nightmarish figure by Hieronymus Bosch was indicative of the development encompassed by this exhibition, not only in the transition of form and subject, but also in intent. 

Maerten de Vos, Saint Luke Painting the Virgin, 1585–1602, Pen and brown ink, brush and white opaque watercolor over black chalk or charcoal, brush and wash on paper, Albertina, Vienna. © The Albertina Museum, Vienna.

Even in the modern period most drawings were preparatory works in one way or another, and the exhibition displayed the breadth of that category. One saw drawings made as designs for paintings and buildings, but there were also drawings made as guides for bookplates, metal engravings, windows, tapestries, and altarpieces. 

In her contribution to the exhibition’s catalogue, Emily J. Peters explains the ways in which great art has often been a collaborative process involving other artists and artisans. For a stained-glass window, for instance, an artist would draw out a design, then someone, sometimes the artist himself, would create a cartoon—a full-sized drawing of the work, which would then be handed over to the artisan, who completed the commission. A beautiful example of one of these cartoons is Jan de Beer’s Tree of Jesse (ca. 1515–20). This work immediately attracts the viewer’s attention because of its imposing size: it is a pair of drawings the shape and height of church windows, depicting the lineage from Jesse to Jesus. Wise, old faces stare down at the viewer, emphasized by dashes of white chalk standing against toned gray paper. In a room full of drawings the size of a man’s head, these two flowing windows stood out. 

Hans Bol, Abraham Sends Away Hagar and Ishmael (View of Dordrecht), 1592, Pen and brown ink, brush and grey wash on paper, Private collection. Photo: courtesy of Sotheby’s, New York.

The exhibition focused on how artists handled religious themes and retold stories from the Bible along contemporary contexts. On one wall, a 1567 drawing of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem suggested to me a connection between that desecration and the wave of Protestant iconoclasm that destroyed many works of Netherlandish art in 1566. Another example of contemporary reinterpretations of religious stories is found in Hans Bol’s Abraham Sends Away Hagar and Ishmael (View of Dordrecht) (ca. 1592). In this tiny cityscape, most of the work’s surface is taken up by Bol’s finely rendered Netherlandish port; without the accompanying panel, it may be hard to identify the biblical figures in the bottom-left corner. This combination of biblical story and modern setting was common to many different works in this exhibition. 

The exhibition effectively explained how the rise in urban wealth and population gave birth to new artistic subjects and opportunities. “Tales of the City” left one with great insight into all that can be done with pen and ink and an admiration for how drawing can be the basis for other visual arts or a work of original beauty in its own right. For those interested in more on drawing in Netherlandish art, the exhibition’s catalogue is available from Yale University Press. 

  1.   “Tales of the City: Drawing in the Netherlands from Bosch to Bruegel” was on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art from October 9, 2022, to January 8, 2023.

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