Gravelot Sketches

Friday, March 20, 2009

Gravelot Sketches

**This cross-posted collaboration features an attitudinal stimulus package by David Apatoff of Illustration Art with peacay of BibliOdyssey on image wrangling and cattle prod detail.**

Hubert François (Burguignon) Gravelot (1669-1773) trained in Paris as an illustrator-engraver under François Boucher and came to London in about 1732. He was friends with William Hogarth and they both taught at the St Martin's Lane Academy, something of a precursor to the Royal Academy. Thomas Gainsborough was known to have studied under Gravelot.

From France, Gravelot brought with him the ornate styling of the rococo, which he helped promote in his thirteen year sojourn in England. He contributed designs for goldsmiths, furniture makers and the commercial print trade, but his book illustrations - for luxury editions - were particularly influential. He illustrated Gay's 'Fables', Shakespeare and Dryden, and was one of the first artists to illustrate the novel, designing engravings for Richardson's 'Pamela' and Fielding's 'Tom Jones'.

Of the ten images below, the first eight were preparatory sketches for the 'Decameron'; the second-to-last from a Voltaire compilation and the final image is from an unnamed collection (links at the end of the post).

Gravelot - Decameron titlepage

Gravelot - Decameron distressed woman

I've been told that one way to measure the quality of an oriental rug is to count its borders. Generally, the more borders around the rug, the more complex it is, and the higher its quality. But I usually find the opposite to be true of drawings: the more fancy borders required to make a drawing look important, the weaker the drawing tends to be. The owners of these Gravelot pictures have surrounded them with up to 14 borders and embellishments (some of them in gold) before you finally hone in on his drawing. Even then, we're not done. Gravelot encircles some of his own drawings with yet another ornate border-- a decorative wreath bedecked with the tools of the arts and sciences, or the symbols of the theatre, or fawning muses overwhelmed by the brilliance of what the reader is about to behold. By the time you finally get through to the drawing itself-- the image at the core where the artist demonstrates what his hand and eye and imagination are capable of-- the viewer has some pretty high expectations.

Unfortunately, I don't see a whole lot here to suggest that Gravelot's drawings satisfy those expectations. These are light, capable drawings. I can understand people preserving and studying them for their significance to the history of the engraving arts, or the manners and customs of his day, but not particularly for the quality of the drawing. Unfortunately, the quality of the drawing is usually the part that interests me the most.

Gravelot - Decameron frontispiece

Gravelot - Decameron kitchen scene

Gravelot - Decameron outside barrel scene

When Gravelot was drawing these pictures, his artistic choices were limited by the fact that the drawings would have to pass through a cumbersome engraving process that was already more than 300 years old. First, the drawing would have to be transposed onto a wood block or metal plate. Next, the plate or block was turned over to an engraver who attempted to carve the image into the surface using sharp and unwieldy tools. This process effectively prevented an artist from drawing in certain styles; Gravelot could not get too spontaneous or fluid with his line, or use half tones in his picture. Finally, the printed picture ended up as a mirror image of the artist's original drawing. The result of this arduous process was a picture several stages removed from the artist's concept.

The artist had to start out with a drawing that would be compatible with the engraving medium and robust enough to survive the deflavorizing process. For example, Gustave Dore was justly famous for powerful compositions that remained lively and strong throughout the engraving process.

Because Gravelot was both an artist and an engraver, he probably had more insight than most into what types of drawings would translate well into engravings. In addition, his engravings probably ended up closer to the artist's original intent than many other engravings (which were often signed by both the artist and the engraver.)

Not long after Gravelot died, photoengraving replaced engraving as the technique for reproducing art in books and magazines. The new technology set artists free and transformed the entire field of illustration. Delicate nuances in line, subtle gradations in color, detailed images were all reproduced with much greater fidelity, permitting artists to do their very best.

Gravelot - Decameron outside crowd scene

Gravelot - Decameron seated crowd

Gravelot - Decameron crowd scene

Gravelot may have played an historically significant role as a designer and engraver, but his drawing seems pretty anemic to me. You can see from these preliminary studies how often he has to go back to re-work simple figures he should have been able to visualize and lay out straightforwardly. [title page, outside crowd scene]. Note how tentative his line work is, and how heavily dependent he is upon mechanical tools such as the grid for his vanishing points. [kitchen scene, Imprimerie] Most capable artists could simply intuit perspective in drawings this small, with subjects this simple, but Gravelot's preliminary drawings seem to reveal a well deserved lack of confidence.

One of the purposes of an illustration is to help stretch the reader's imagination by providing an artist's vision of the story. It is ironic then, that illustrating a book as bawdy and rich as the Decameron, we are presented with such wan and lifeless drawings. It's hard to imagine that a reader could not do better on his or her own imagination. These illustrations seem to serve as a visual chastity belt, keeping our minds within legitimate boundaries rather than titillating and unleashing them. There is no commitment or emphasis here, no urgency or merriment in the art to correspond to these stories. By today's standards for illustration, this work seems like a real mismatch between form and content.

Gravelot - Imprimerie

Gravelot - Voltaire crowd scene

No comments:

Post a Comment