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Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns

May 3 – July 26, 2015
West Building, Ground Floor, West Outer Tier Galleries

Leonardo da Vinci, A Bust of a Warrior, c. 1475/1480, On loan from The British Museum, London © The Trustees of the British Museum, London

This exhibition is no longer on view at the National Gallery.

Overview: Since the Middle Ages, artists have used metalpoint to create some of the most beautiful and technically accomplished drawings ever made. Interest in the medium peaked during the Renaissance when it was embraced by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Albrecht Dürer. Revived in the nineteenth century, metalpoint continues to be practiced today.

An artist working in metalpoint uses a sharp, pointed 
instrument (a stylus) with a metal tip to draw on paper, 
parchment, or wood that has been specially coated. As 
the stylus travels across this slightly abrasive ground, a 
small amount of metal is scraped off and remains behind,
 creating a line. Almost any metal can be used, though only lead, which is softer than others, can be used without a ground. When first drawn, all metalpoint lines, including those made by gold, appear gray, an optical effect that stems in part from the breaking down of the metal into tiny particles. Some metals oxidize, or tarnish, to different colors over time: silver, for example, generally turns golden brown. Others, such as gold, never tarnish and remain gray. Goldpoint appeals to some artists for this reason, although it was rarely used before the nineteenth century. Most of the drawings in this exhibition are silverpoints, by far the most common form of metalpoint through history.

Silverpoint is often considered a challenging medium. The lines can be difficult or even impossible to erase depending on such factors as the type of ground. Unlike pen or chalk, which can produce strokes of varying thickness or darkness depending on how hard artists bear down on the instrument, silver leaves a nearly uniform line. Nonetheless, the medium offers practical and aesthetic advantages: Its portability and convenience make it particularly suited for use in sketchbooks, as artists do not have to carry an inkwell or wait for ink to dry. Silverpoint is especially resistant to smearing and therefore has the added benefit of durability. Also, the precision and subtlety of its delicate lines render it ideal for capturing fine detail. Above all, it is the shimmering beauty of silverpoint that has attracted artists across the centuries.

Organization: Organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with The British Museum, London.

Sponsors: The exhibition is made possible by a generous gift in memory of Melvin R. Seiden.

The Exhibition Circle of the National Gallery of Art is also supporting the exhibition.

The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Attendance: 68,884

Catalog: Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns. By Stacey Sell et al. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2015.

Other Venues: The British Museum, London, September 10–December 6, 2015

Dürer, Albrecht
German, 1471 - 1528
Johns, Jasper
American, 1930 -
Italian, 1483 - 1520
Rembrandt van Rijn
Dutch, 1606 - 1669
Leonardo da Vinci
Italian, 1452 - 1519
Weyden, Rogier van der
Netherlandish, 1399 - 1464
A Closer Look at Metalpoint Drawing
Audio, Released: June 30, 2015, (37:10 minutes)
Introduction to the Exhibition—Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns
Audio, Released: May 19, 2015, (65:54 minutes)
Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns
Video, Released: April 28, 2015, (10:22 minutes)