Seizing rare opportunities as they arose over the last 40 years, the Gallery has been extremely lucky to build the world's finest collection of Piranesi etchings and illustrated books. Our collection of his outstanding drawings has also come a long way, now numbering 18. Before this acquisition, the Gallery owned 5 Piranesi figure drawings, all much smaller, which offered a greatly varied view of the artist's output from the 1750s through the 1760s, but we held none from the last decade of Piranesi's life.
This magnificent late figure drawing was rediscovered last year in a French private collection and acquired by the National Gallery of Art in January 2014 from the Parisian dealer Paul Prouté. It is a superb example of Piranesi's late style: much more monumental than his early figure drawings; bold and dark in stroke, with the broad lines of a reed pen quickly outlining and shading the figures; and focused on bodily form and gesture rather than psychology. The subject is wonderfully personal, and first appears in his late drawings: Piranesi's printers working at presses he kept in his own house. Their aprons and rolled-up sleeves are typical of the time and trade. They labor at tables or platforms, undoubtedly on Piranesi's copperplates laid flat. The man on the right appears to hold a container of thick printing ink in his left hand and wipes ink into the grooves of the copperplate with his right.
Piranesi was frugal. He frequently saved and reused paper by cutting up drawings or artist's working proofs to use their blank versos as scratch paper, usually for figure drawings. In contrast to his French contemporaries, the pragmatic Piranesi was less concerned about selling working drawings or etching proofs to collectors or connoisseurs. Once even a beautiful drawing had served its purpose, he saw no need to preserve or sell it and instead cut up the drawing and used the back to draw other subjects.
The verso of Two Workmen at Tables exemplifies Piranesi's frugality. It appears to be about half of an earlier drawing of a big feline. The deep shadow indicates it was probably drawn from a bas relief. In fact, Piranesi's cat is taken from an antique relief of a lion discovered at Tivoli in central Italy and installed in the Palazzo Barbarini in Rome. Seeing the complete lion sculpture reveals that Piranesi used this drawing to create similar lions in one of the final etchings for his famous series, Carceri (Prisons). The first 14 prints of Carceri were etched c. 1750, but the final two were added in 1761. This is the only drawing, or fragment of a drawing, known to exist for the final two Carceri.
Interestingly the verso also shows round, brownish spots in all four corners: remains of glue where the figure drawing was mounted to an album page in the late 18th century, thus assuring us it is complete as Piranesi finished it. The ink and paper were well preserved in the album and they are beautifully fresh—as if the drawing had just been removed.
French private collection; (Paul Prouté, S.A., Paris); purchased 2014 by NGA.