This sheet of drawings, Michelangelo’s studies for the Libyan Sibyl, perhaps the most beautiful of the figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, has always impressed me as a self-contained master course in drawing.
It’s loose, expressive and supremely confident. The draughtsmanship is precise and elegant. The figure is modeled in detail but there is still an economy of line. The tone work is subtle and strong and defines the forms with unquestionable fidelity. The line itself is firm and definite, but almost disappears in places. You can see the remnants of light construction lines where Michelangelo is searching out the form, but when he finds it, he nails it. No question.
The drawing is exquisitely beautiful, and of all of the master drawings I’ve seen in my life it remains one of my absolute favorites, yet it was never meant to be a work of art.
For Michelangelo Buonerroti, as with most artists before the Baroque period, drawing was a tool, a step in the preparation of a final work, whether a painting, sculpture or other work, and not an art form in itself. Drawings were made into woodblocks, engravings or etchings for display as artworks, but the original drawings were seldom considered works in themselves. (Michelangelo burned many of his drawings before his death!)
Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor and not a painter or a draughtsman, yet his drawings are among the most brilliant in the history of art. (Hey, that’s why they call these guys “masters”.)
I’ve had the opportunity to see this drawing in person twice, once in Philadelphia and once in New York, and I was entranced by it both times, coming back to it again and again. Like all works on paper, it can’t be on permanent display and is only shown as part of a temporary exhibition. The original is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in NY. You can view it in detail with the zooming feature on their site.
There is a major exhibit titled Michelangelo Drawings: closer to the master at the British Museum in London (this drawing is not part of it) opening this Thursday, March 23rd and running to June 25th, 2006. The exhibit draws on the collections of The Ashmolean and the Teyler Museum in Haarlem as well as the British Museum’s own collection.
You can find some other selections from the exhibit here, some other Michelangelo drawings on the Web Gallery of Art, Casa Buonarroti, and excerpts here from a book published by Yale University Press: Michelangelo Drawings : Closer to the Master (Hugo Chapman).