Museum Home Past Exhibitions Mise en Page: The Art of Composing on Paper

December 17, 2002–March 2, 2003 at the Getty Center

Sheet of Studies / Procaccini
Sheet of Studies
Giulio Cesare Procaccini

If you've ever let your imagination run free while doodling, you'll recognize mise en page, an aesthetic quality prized in the work of old master drawings. French for "placement on the page," the term refers to an artist's arrangement of forms across a sheet. This exhibition of works selected from the Getty Museum's own collection traces the development of mise en page from its earliest expression in Renaissance sketches to its ultimate refinement by 18th-century French artists such as Jean-Antoine Watteau.

Mise en page as an aesthetic ideal originated in the late 15th century, when draftsmen rejected the rigid contours of medieval drawings in favor of dynamic, unrestricted lines. With the increasing availability of paper and the introduction of such versatile media as pen and ink or chalk, a new freedom of expression arose. As a result, compositions became more instinctive and paper came to be regarded as a stage for invention, experimentation, and improvisation.

Studies of an Infant with Lamb / da Vinci
Studies for the Christ
Child with a Lamb

Leonardo da Vinci

Motion on Paper

The pivotal figure in the birth of mise en page was the Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci, who used the blank surface of the paper as a field for artistic invention. His line of thought and spontaneous search for form can be traced in these consecutive sketches of an infant with a lamb. The complex pose progresses in stages, beginning with a faint suggestion of the group in black chalk at center. This silhouette, barely visible with the naked eye, evolves into a wiry definition of contours in pen at right, followed by a clearer and more economical description immediately below. The final result is the accurately modeled sketch at left.

Caricature of Two Men Seen in Profile / Guercino
Caricature of Two Men Seen in Profile
Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino

Framing the Figure

There are innumerable ways of placing figures on the page. "Framing" relates here to both the viewpoint chosen by the artist (like the photographer's frame) and the invisible frame created by the edges of the paper.

The two bloated bodies featured in profile here are placed in a square sheet that exaggerates the shape of their figures. Among the most distinguished Bolognese artists of the early 17th century, Guercino was also an accomplished caricaturist. The men are framed within a contour pen line (a fragment is visible along the lower border) and the edges of the paper.

Anatomical Studies / Rubens
Anatomical Studies
Peter Paul Rubens

The Body in Focus

The flourishing of draftsmanship during the Renaissance was accompanied by a curiosity about man and nature. Drawing became a vehicle for understanding human anatomy. The portrayal of the body gave way to the most compelling examples of mise en page.

In this sheet, the placement of figures transforms it beyond a common anatomical study and into one of the most striking renderings of the human body. Rubens's flayed bodies strike outward and inward, as if to pierce the boundaries of space.

Two Studies / Watteau
Two Studies of Flutist and Head of a Boy
Jean-Antoine Watteau

The Aesthetics of the Page

The blank spaces and drawn areas of the sheet create lines and forms that are intimately bound on the page. In this drawing by Watteau, the composition is premeditated, not haphazardly conceived. It intentionally dictates the final look of the drawing, giving it the appearance of an independent work of art.

The aesthetics of the page became the essence of draftsmanship in France during the 18th century. Watteau and his contemporaries turned informal preparatory sketches into beautifully presented and exquisitely rendered masterpieces on paper. Not surprisingly, their drawings are among the most sought after by modern-day collectors.

Studies of Armor / Veronese
Studies of Armor
Paolo Veronese

The Collector's Eye

The mise en page of a drawing may be dictated by the taste of a patron or altered by subsequent owners. When a work leaves the artist's workshop, it is often cropped and reduced to fit onto album pages or embellished with elaborate mounts, and it is sometimes cut in pieces for sale. The Getty Museum presents drawings in neutral cream-colored mats. These noninvasive, acid-free covers protect each sheet. Decorative mounts, scattered inscriptions, and remodeled edges are now a part of a drawing's history.

This drawing is part of the so-called Sagredo-Borghese album, a now disbound album of drawings assembled probably by an 18th-century Venetian collector. The sheet is still attached to the page with paper hinges in the unconventional style of this particular collector.