The Idea of the Beautiful and the Art of Drawing

© David Mayernik


The highest and eternal intellect, author of nature, in fashioning his marvelous works looked deeply into himself and constituted the first forms, called Ideas, in such a way that each species was expressed by that original Idea, giving form to the marvelous context of things created.... Painters and Sculptors, imitating the first maker, also form in their minds an example of superior beauty, and in beholding it they emend nature with faultless line and color.

--Pietro Bellori, 1672


The popular understanding of representational art puts a high value on verisimilitude: how much something (a painting, a drawing) looks like (or how much one imagines it looks like) the thing represented. It is, at one level, not unlike the taste for gelato: the quality of a strawberry gelato is directly related to how much it tastes like real strawberries. Along with this expectation about accuracy is an implicit understanding that the great achievements in Old Master art are rooted in the principle of what we might call transcription: the direct documentation of what the artist had in front of him or herself. Underlying it all is a conviction that Beauty lies precisely in this: the accurate representation of actual things (which are either assumed to be beautiful themselves, or are made beautiful in their re-presentation). While certain statements that we have from Old Master artists, and their contemporary critics, do stress the importance of drawing, painting, or sculpting from life, a critical corollary to this aspect of achievement is the role of Beauty as an abstract Idea, independent of real things and existing aloof in the Divine Mind orchestrating the cosmos: in other words, an ideal to be striven for, existing outside of time or contingency, whose manifestations in the phenomenal world (and in artistic production) are implicitly imperfect.

This Idea of the Beautiful is, at its root, Platonic or neo-Platonic, and as such finds a voice in the writings of, for example, humanists like Alberti in the fifteenth century, Vasari in the sixteenth, and Bellori in the seventeenth. While art historians are quick to look for the distinguishing characteristics between Early and High Renaissance, or Renaissance and Mannerism, or finally Mannerism and Baroque, this thread of continuity of the Idea of the Beautiful suggests that artists for more than two hundred years all essentially aspired to the same thing--what distinguishes them is a sense of emphasis, or perhaps methodology. But what it also means is that any of their recommendations to work directly from Nature has to be tempered by the knowledge that Nature only provided imperfect models which the artist then has to try to perfect--either by combining beautiful parts from various sources, or by constant reference to the antique.

Classical Realism has to be seen then, in the context of the classical approach to art, as an oxymoron. While naturalism was a goal for many classical artists, realism--direct imitation of Nature--was actually to be avoided. Those who did, or seemed to, work directly from the model (or an actual landscape) were frowned upon or even disdained. Mastery of the model was supposed to, in fact, free the artist to work directly from his Idea, so that he could transcend the banal or ordinary. Intimate knowledge of Nature made the artist master of an inventive world of his mind, and explains both the heroism of classical portraiture and the virtuosic illusionism of ceiling paintings.

The point of liberation within the classical figurative tradition was in drawing: there the artist both re-presented, and invented. We should remember the exploratory implications of the Italian word invenzione: it suggests digging, finding, uncovering. Drawing in the inventive process is a search for the Idea through the medium of the figure. Giorgio Vasari said this about the process:


[D]esign [disegno] is not other than a visible expression and declaration of our inner conception and of that which others have imagined and given form to in their idea.


That "inner conception" is guided by an informed judgment shaped by the experience of the best of the classical tradition. When that judgment is so ingrained as to be intuitive, the artist finally begins to be ready to invent within that tradition. And the experience of that kind of invention then colors future experiences of documentation, to the point where disegno becomes a fertile exchange between the past and present.




The primacy put on the Idea of the Beautiful--a Renaissance formulation given greater impetus in the seventeenth century after the achievements of the Carracci's Accademia degli Incamminati--is what distinguishes a classical approach to every subject, from the figure to the landscape.