The Encounter, an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery until October 22nd and featuring work by some of the outstanding masters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, feels a little like walking into a party. When I visit, there are more portraits than people, but the sense of bodies in the room encompasses those on the walls as well as those milling round them. You can meet eyes with a good portrait, and here I can almost reach out and touch the cheek of Man with Shoulder-length Hair, or John More. The subjects for these drawings range from aristocrats and courtiers commissioning official portraits to studio assistants and other people close at hand to the artists, like friends and family. Crucially, their likenesses were never meant to be displayed in this form – rather, these drawings were tools to be copied by budding artists like a training manual, or a note-to-self for the master approaching a painting. Sometimes, of course, they were made purely for pleasure, and given as gifts to their subjects. There are traces, then, of the artists as well as the sitters in these works. Due to the speed at which many of them were made, many aren’t ‘finished’: sleeves lose out to faces, or, in the case of da Vinci’s Study of a Nude Man, face loses out to anatomical accuracy. The artist’s priorities are betrayed by where he has spent his time on the page or canvas.
You’ve met Young Man Looking to his Left, but how about Durer’s Henry Parker – 10th Baron Morely, no less? Not so sweet as the boy above, his drawing was a study for a painting, composed to communicate his power and prestige as Henry VIII’s representative. For all his finery, and carefully arch facial expression, there remains a human being behind the pomp; a little tired, perhaps overwrought. Commissioning the portrait as he did, Morely would have wanted the finished piece to project statesmanship, sobriety and distinction (all that breeding!) It begs the question of its viewer what they might want to communicate about themselves, were they to be painted. It draws into focus the information we’re trying to project every day, in the ways we speak and dress, move and stand.