Old Master Drawings are classified as such because of the medium and support employed and the date of the work. The designation is commonly understood to include works of the 15th through the early 19th centuries (Renaissance through Neo-Classicism) most often executed in chalk, or pen & ink, and/or brush and wash, and usually on a paper support but sometimes on vellum or parchment. Often their purpose is of a preliminary or preparatory nature - as designs for an engraving, for instance the Bouzonnet-Stella after Poussin or the Preyss after Vicentino. Drawings can also be preparatory designs for ornaments or objects or for more temporal decorations such as a banner or a splendid carriage created for a parade or celebration.
Drawings sometimes study the pose of a figure for a painting or an altarpiece, like the delicate and lovely angels by Gandolfi presented on this site; or a figurative grouping such as the Camillo Boccacino for a fresco decoration running just under the ceiling on the wall of a grand "salone;" or the Baldi, a roughly circular design for a ceiling. Drawings can depict an entire composition like the Camassei which may have been preparatory for a painting, as well as the Dandini. The Viani was definitely for a recorded, if lost, work for the church. Designs for sculpture or medals were also drawn.
Drawings can also be autonomous works, conceived for their own sake. Examples are the Divine Heads of Michelangelo, the portraits of Bernini, the pastoral or garden landscapes of Natoire or Fragonard, the capriccios of Guardi or, as can be seen here, the impressive Guercino. The stunning landscape by Knip and the pair of drawings by LanoŘe enhanced by white heightening on colored paper are autonomous. The Thomas is an end in itself, executed by an architect for sale when there were few commissions for designing buildings. The dramatic Tetar van Elven of a rock slide is autonomous.
The use of one color of chalk was often augmented to include two colors, like a combination of red & black, as in the rare figure study by Schouman or the extraordinary Veronese life study. Colored papers as well as colored chalks can enhance a given drawing. Blue paper is especially attractive but when exposed to light often turns a greenish grey, as seen in the Baldi ceiling design. Still its tonality affords a rich middle tone between the darker chalk and white heightening. Leonardo at the beginning of the 16th century and Barocci at the end, favored the use of multi-colored chalks, including yellows and oranges - a soft yet rich mixture that appealed also to Mola in 17th century Rome, Castiglione (who also added vivid touches of oil paint in 17th century Genoa), and culminating in the pastels, first of Benedetto Luti in Rome in the earliest decades of the 18th century, and soon after with the portraits of Rosalba Carriere in Venice. Pastels were soon thereafter used by such a good number of French artists in Paris that today it is of them whom we think as the masters of the medium. The use of multicolored paints when the medium is gouache, or watercolor, does not preclude us from including these works as drawings. The support is usually paper but sometimes, like with Marco Ricci's gouaches, it is leather or parchment. The Merli shown here, executed in gouache on vellum, was meant to be inserted into a 16th century Venetian document but stands on its own without it.
We have touched on the topic of autonomous sheets which it should be noted also encompass works intended to record or document the completion or existence of another work of art, such as one of the many drawings after Antiquities by Pietro Testa, Pietro da Cortona and other artists in Rome commissioned by Cassiano dal Pozzo. The bulk of these were acquired for the library of King George III of England in the 18th century and still reside at Windsor Castle. Others are still available with Ms. Weiner. Another autonomous example would be Claude's gorgeous landscape drawings populated with mythological or biblical figures that document the subject and composition of his autograph paintings. Autonomous drawings may be natural historical in nature, replicating insects on plants.
Oil sketches are akin to drawings in that they are often executed on paper; their purpose is sometimes exploratory and sometimes they are ends in themselves. When sufficiently articulated, they can serve as presentation pieces, enabling a patron to get an idea of what the artist's larger-scaled and more elaborate project would look like. It is unclear whether the charming Ridolfi shown here is autonomous or was a bozzetto for a painting on a larger scale, or served as a presentation piece. Such grisailles and brunailles in oil, monochromatic by nature, are often conserved by the drawings departments of institutions, even though they are painted in oil. The Camuccini is a gorgeous example of plein air landscape painting in oil, a method of painting common to Northeners visiting Italy, but unusual for an Italian artist.
It is hoped that the previously uninitiated will be intrigued by the material presented here. Our intention is to show what a rich and varied field this is, to inspire you to view the drawings displayed on this web-site, and tempt you to collect in this splendid and fascinating field.