In the late eighteenth century, when the advent of Neoclassicism had many painters turning to subjects inspired by ancient Rome, the ability to render drapery on the human figure became an essential skill, as seen in a group of drapery studies on view in the Robert Wood Johnson, Jr. Gallery through September 28. Just as it had in antiquity, both the challenge and the appeal of the subject lay in the way the drapery both covered and revealed the human form.
In Joseph Ferdinand Lancrenon's study of Helen, the figures and faces are indicated only in rudimentary outline, with the artist's effort reserved for the delicate modeling of Helen's drapery as it clings to her body and flutters in the breeze.
In a preliminary study of a mythological scene, Baron Gérard uses filmy layers of wash to suggest flowing translucent fabric, investing the scene with a sense of movement and animation.
More sober and opaque is the study of a young mother in a biblical scene of Christ blessing the children painted by Swiss artist Angelica Kauffmann around 1796. The weighty layers of fabric carefully modeled by the artist lend a strength and monumentality to the woman who, in the painting, carries an infant in her left hand and holds the hand of an older child in her right.
The treatment of drapery was often affected by the function of the drawing. This large sheet by sculptor Augustin Pajou was a design for a bas-relief. The narrow cast shadows along the right contours of the figures allow us to envision how he intended to carve the scene in shallow relief.
Pierre Paul Prud'hon was a master of rendering fabric in a tactile manner, here in this study creating a velvety effect by blending black and white chalk on blue paper. This study depicts a detail of Andromache's gown in Prud'hon's Andromache and Astyanax, which is also in the Met's collection and is on view in gallery 614.
On view for one more week, this group of five Neoclassical drapery studies offers a glimpse into the multitude of ways artists have chosen to approach one of the most universal of subjects: the body as it is both hidden and revealed by clothing.
Drawings and Prints: Selections from the Permanent Collection, on view June 23–September 28, 2015
Read other blog posts related to this exhibition on Now at the Met.