Museum Home Past Exhibitions Drawing the Classical Figure

December 23, 2008–March 8, 2009 at the Getty Center

The Invention of Drawing / Suvee
The Invention of Drawing, Joseph-Benoît Suvée, about 1791

Mastering the depiction of the human figure has long been considered the cornerstone of artistic practice. To perfect their representation of human anatomy, musculature, and proportion, artists throughout the ages turned to ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. By imitating ancient precedents, artists developed a classical figural type that remained the predominant mode of representation for centuries.

This exhibition surveys how draftsmen evoked the sculptural grandeur of classical art—from idealized males of Herculean proportions to sensual females that recalled statues of Venus.

The monumental sculpture of Greece and Rome inspired the idealized figures in this drawing by Joseph-Benoît Suvée. It depicts a story described by Roman author Pliny the Elder, in which a Corinthian woman named Dibutade traces the shadow cast by her lover onto a wall before he was to leave on a long journey—thus inventing the art of drawing.

Reclining Male Nude / Salviati
Reclining Male Nude, Francesco Salviati, about 1550

Beginning in the late 1400s, European artists drew inspiration from the monumental sculptures of antiquity. Many young artists traveled to Rome to study and sketch the city's classical ruins.

In this highly finished chalk drawing made after a classical statue, the Reclining Hercules, Francesco Salviati meticulously rendered the form of a reclining nude. His subtle modeling suggests smooth, polished marble.

Salviati sought to improve the damaged sculpture by enhancing the mannered elegance of the body. His depiction of Hercules illustrates how late Renaissance artists moved away from strict classical prototypes to imagined, expressive representations.

The Holy Family / Michelangelo
The Holy Family, Michelangelo Buonarroti, about 1530
audio Audio: How did Michelangelo create a sculptural effect in this drawing?

During his lifetime, Michelangelo's sculpture was considered "unequaled by any modern or ancient work," a belief that the artist himself promoted. Inspired by the ancient works he saw in Florence and Rome, Michelangelo sought to perfect the human form.

In this depiction of the Holy Family, Michelangelo created bold sculptural figures built up through a layering of media. The flowing classical drapery that clings to Mary and Joseph accentuates their monumentality.

Three Sketches for Medea and Her Children / Rubens
Three Sketches for Medea and Her Children (detail), Peter Paul Rubens, about 1600–1604
audio Audio: How does this sheet show Rubens's thought process?
learn_more See the drawing on the other side of this sheet.

Drawing classical sculpture continued to be central to artistic practice after the Renaissance.

Peter Paul Rubens spent formative periods in Italy between 1600 and 1608 studying ancient sculpture. His ability to write and read Latin afforded him a more scholarly engagement with antiquity than most artists.

Here Medea, rejected by her husband, Jason, and maddened by jealousy into killing their children, dangles two dead infants as she rushes wildly away. Rubens also proposed two alternative ideas: his Latin inscription suggests that he could depict Medea looking back at the burning of Jason's new bride, Creusa, or show Jason in pursuit of Medea.

The Sons of Niobe Being Slain / De Bisschop
The Sons of Niobe Being Slain by Apollo and Diana, Jan de Bisschop, about 1660–70

Like other artists working in the late 1600s, Jan de Bisschop was fond of classical subjects and views of Rome. This drawing—which depicts Apollo (god of the sun, music, and poetry) and Diana (goddess of the hunt) slaying the sons and daughters of Niobe in revenge for her boastful nature—appears to be a copy after an ancient relief.

Trained as a lawyer, de Bisschop had a thorough understanding of ancient rhetoric. He belonged to an elite circle of intellectuals living in The Hague who published commentaries on classical sculpture.

A Draftsman in the Capitoline Gallery / Robert
A Draftsman in the Capitoline Gallery, Hubert Robert, about 1765
audio Audio: What made the Capitoline Museum so important to a young artist's training?
learn_more See a close-up of the artist dwarfed by the ancient statues.

A seated artist studiously draws after an ancient statue housed in the Capitoline Museum in this drawing. The Capitoline Museum and the Vatican housed some of the most important Greek and Roman antiquities and were prime destinations for young artists visiting Rome.

Artist Hubert Robert placed the draftsman in the near distance and depicted him much smaller than the surrounding statues. Dwarfed by the antiquities, the figure evokes the effects ancient artistic achievement had on artists through the ages.

This sheet undoubtedly alludes to Robert's own experience in Rome, where he lived from 1754 to 1765.

Study of a Female Nude / Prud'hon
Study of a Female Nude, Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, about 1800
audio Audio: How did Prud'hon make this figure look like marble?

French artist Pierre-Paul Prud'hon visited Rome from 1784 to 1788, and his dedication to the study of ancient sculpture resulted in a figural style that relied on the rendering of volume and light. Upon his return to Paris, Prud'hon was praised for "carrying Greece and the gods around in his head."

In this female nude, drawn in the studio after a live model, the classically inspired pose and shimmering white skin are evocative of ancient marble sculpture. In addition, the model's dreamy gaze and the soft play of shadows across her flesh create an aura of sensuality.

Throughout the 1800s, artists would revive all things classical, including an interest in ancient Greek architecture, sculpture, and the idealized figure. Artists of the 19th and 20th centuries continued to draw from the past, often adapting prior traditions to pursue their own visions.

Download the illustrated exhibition checklist. (PDF, 2 MB, 7 pp.)
Sphinx by Auguste Rodin
Miss Lala at the Fernando Circus by Edgar Degas
Eve ('The Nightmare') by Paul Gauguin