EYCK, Jan van
(b. before 1395, Maaseik, d. before 1441, Bruges)
Portrait of Cardinal Albergatic. 1435
Silverpoint, 212 x 180 mm
In the 15th-century Netherlands, drawings were not yet regarded as works of art in their own right. They were not seen as independent representations, merely as aids to the creation of a complete work which might be a painting, a sculpture, or a tapestry. Their constant use in workshops, and the fact that they were handed on from artist to artist - whether as a legacy to a painter's successors, or on loan from one master to another - led to wear and tear on the drawings themselves, so that in the end they had to be replaced, and the originals were thrown away Consequently, only a fraction of the huge number of drawings that must have existed in the stocks of Netherlandish workshops has been preserved. North of the Alps, it is not until around 1500, when Albrecht Dürer was collecting drawings by his much admired predecessor Martin Schongauer, that any higher regard for drawings as a specific means of artistic expression, or their careful preservation and collection, can be traced.
Among the few drawings that have been preserved from the first two-thirds of the 15th century, only one can be definitely ascribed to a specific artist: Jan van Eyck's Portrait of an Old Man, now in Dresden, which is frequently but incorrectly described as a portrait of Cardinal Albergati. It is a very detailed, lively drawing from life, showing a few minor corrections and executed in silverpoint, a very popular form of pencil at the time, using a silver tip to leave a fine and indelible gray line on the rough surface of paper that has been specially prepared with a pale ground. Very subtle colour notes for the nuances of the sitter's hair and skin have been written down on the drawing, showing that it must have been done from life, and as the portrait painted from it by Jan is still extant in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the drawing must be by his own hand.