by Tim Llewellyn
Chairman of the Friends of the Courtauld Institute

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, The Head of a Boy   Jacopo Pontormo, Seated Youth
Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, The Head of a Boy and an Old Man c.1730s. Chalk on Paper    Jacopo Pontormo, Seated Youth c.1525. Chalk on Paper

The strength of the painting collection at the Courtauld Galleries is such that sometimes the extraordinary quality of the drawings which generous collectors have left to the Institute is overlooked. The two drawings I have chosen to discuss are wonderfully revealing examples of the work of two artists whom I admire very much and for whom drawing was enormously important. Moreover, they have significant points in common: they are in the same medium and of similar rather large size; they both depict young men and they were both drawn from life. Seated Youth drawn by Jacopo Pontormo (1494 - 1557) around 1525 in black chalk on buff coloured paper and measuring 40.4 by 28 cm., is part of the Princes Gate Collection, the gift of Count Antoine Seilern given in 1978.

The Head of a Boy and an Old Man, a work of Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (1682 - 1754) probably dating from the 1730s, is also drawn in black chalk but this time with white heightening and on pale grey paper. It measures 34.1 by 27.35 cm. and came to the Institute in 1952 with the collection left by Sir Robert Witt.

To the best of our knowledge Pontormo's drawing was not intended or used as a preparatory study for a fresco or easel painting. Indeed, its extraordinary immediacy suggests that it was a spontaneous reaction to the appearance of a rather bored 'garzone’ one day in the artist's studio, a drawing made for its own sake, an exercise in observation and skill of the hand. It is true that the main contours of the figure have been indented with a stylus, but this may well have been done later, perhaps by a pupil making a copy. Pontormo, who wrote that for him drawing excelled all other art forms in importance, carefully retained his drawings in his studio where they would have been available to his pupils.

They remained there until his death. Piazzetta was reputed to have made drawings every day, including many preparatory studies, but we know that some were for a different purpose. The existence of similar sheets suggests that the Courtauld drawing was intended as a work of art in its own right, to be sold to one of a group of enthusiastic international collectors. It is probable that these large drawings of heads by Piazzetta which he seems to have made throughout his career, the so-called Teste di Carattere, were intended to be seen framed on the wall, not in an album or portfolio. If so, they were the first series of drawings ever produced specifically for this purpose.

The works themselves present a powerful contrast exemplified by the sitters. Piazzetta's young man, although we only see him in profile, conveys an impression of intense concentration as he follows the finger of his mentor across the page. The composition and the tonal contrasts of the dark chalk against the pale paper combine to suggest that the boy is entirely without distraction from his task. We might say that the drawing is all about "focus". How different is Pontormo's youth! There is an extraordinary idiosyncrasy in the artist's manner of drawing and painting faces and particularly eyes which mark him out from the many great talents which surrounded him as draughtsman and painter. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that these rather unsettling features suggest aspects of the character of the artist himself, shy, introverted, perhaps even neurotic. This boy’s eyes are like infinite oceans and their vacuous gaze allied with the simple, relaxed pose create a haunting image of distraction. Perhaps Pontormo's sublime skill was able to capture in the image of this boy, as in a mirror, some of the uncertainties of his own existence. That same skill enables us to do the same.