IN EARLIER days of the internet, 15 or 20 years back, one game used to be to type “Great French military victories” into a search engine. An auto-correct would pop up on screen suggesting, “Did you mean great French military defeats?”
One might be forgiven for thinking much the same about drawings. Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo, Dürer and Holbein, Alonso Cano, Ribera, and Goya all spring to mind as among the greatest exponents of pen and pencil — Italy, Germany, and Spain.
But what of France? Ingres, certainly, and later Degas; but somehow one becomes less confident after that. All that could be about to change, thanks to an impressive exhibition from the British Museum’s own collection of drawings.
But first you have to find your way up the back stairs (North Entrance) to Room 90, since there is no published catalogue for the show. In the first part of the room are works on paper by the figurative artist Maggi Hambling. Staged on a black background, these 40 works leap out at the visitor and offer an exciting overture to the French works that unfold in the second half of the room.
Sarah Vowles has selected French portrait drawings in a broad chronological sweep from the time of the Valois and Bourbon dynasties to the Third Republic at the collapse of the Second Empire.
Many are of historically identifiable personages. We get to see kings and queens, as Queen Catherine de’ Medici commissioned François Clouet, a contemporary of Holbein, c.1557, to portray members of the Court after sitting to him. Here is the earliest surviving portrait of her (c.1550), which has never been exhibited before, although it was bequeathed to the Museum by George Salting in 1910.
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette face each other in garlanded profile portraits undertaken either side of Christmas 1786 (16 December and 8 January respectively). Jean-Joseph Bernard (1740-1809), who later went on to work for Napoleon without any crisis of conscience, wittily frames them as if they are part of the season’s decorations.
The child prodigy Mozart seated at a harpsichord is a familiar image dating to 1764, which was copied again in 1777 by Louis Carmontelle; and the later architect Augustus Pugin was drawn, as a sensitive teenager, by Louis Lafitte (1770-1828), during a visit to French relatives.
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) in 1630 and the 32-year-old Gustave Courbet (1819-77) stare out at us in dramatic self-portraits, confident and successful. Courbet was obsessed with self-portraiture, and repeatedly portrayed himself in the Romantic guise of the artist.
Others sitters are anonymous, or have perhaps simply lost their identity over the years. A man in a cap, beady-eyed and with a greying beard, stands out proudly in his rugged shirt, open at the neck. This may or may not be a self-portrait of a sculptor, Pierre Biard II (1592-1661). He is less well known than his father and namesake, who had created the wonderful figure of Fame trumpeting the honour of the deceased Duke D’Épernon (in the Louvre), and his most famous work was an equestrian statue of Louis XIII. Until it was destroyed at the Revolution, it stood in the Place Royale in the heart of Paris.
The most intriguing “portrait” in the show, which also includes coins and medals, is a study of an artist’s right hand holding a pen. Pierre Dumonstier II (1585-1656) visited Rome from Paris in 1625. While he was there, he met Artemisia Gentileschi. Capturing the source of her talent in this way, Dumonstier remarked: “The hands of Aurora are praised and renowned for their rare beauty. But this one is a thousand times more worthy for knowing how to make marvels that send the most judicious eyes into rapture.”
Those interested in seeing what he so praised in her art had better follow me this winter to Rome, where the Palazzo Braschi will stage (from 30 November to 8 May) an extensive retrospective of her work. In the mean time, there is a great deal to enjoy in Room 90 in the British Museum.
“French Portrait Drawings from Clouet to Courbet” is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1, until 29 January 2017. Phone 020 7323 8299. www.britishmuseum.org