French Drawings at Somerset House

It is always an immensedelight to visit Somerset Houseand this winter brings us a second chance to soak up the mock-imperial splendour of the Hermitage Rooms. Following the success of last year’sTreasures of Catherine the Great, the Hermitage Development Trust brings us an equally dazzling exhibition:French Drawings and Paintings from the Hermitage: Poussin to Picasso.

Yet our attention is never long drawn away from the sketches. The concept behind the exhibition is as simple as it is brilliant.Drawing was crucial to the development of French art from the mid-sixteenth to early twentieth century;French art dominated the Hermitage’s collection under the reign of Russian Empress Catherine the Great.

The drawings establish thevariety of approaches to the purpose of painting. Some hang asfinished piecesin themselves – such as a black and red chalkPortrait of Charles IXby Fran?ois Clouet in the first gallery. Others serve as preparatory sketches for paintings, furniture or indeed tapestries – as is the case for Charles Lebrun’s designs for the Gobelins tapestry seriesThe History of the King.

The second gallery is dedicated almost entirely to the works ofJean-Baptiste Greuze. No less than eight preparatory sketches accompanyFilial Piety, a sensational canvass depicting a family tending to their dying father, on show for the first time outside Russia. The series of hesitant sketches contrast strikingly with the richness of the oil and provide aninsightful viewinto the characters of the painting.

Nature, landscapes and country pursuitsare explored in a third gallery: Pleasures and Pastimes of the 18th century. I was particularly struck by two Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s sporting scenes -Hunting Trophies by a FountainandDog Pointing a Partridge- both executed in the early 18th century.

French Drawings and Paintings from the Hermitage: Poussin to Picassocelebrates the mastery of effectsachieved by the wide variety of mediums the artists used: ink, chalk, crayon, graphite, gouache and charcoal. It offersa comprehensive lesson into the development of art techniques. A tour of the Rooms, accompaniedby the excellent audio-guide, isa must dothis winter.

This exhibition runs till . Access to the Hermitage Rooms is via the Seamen’s Waiting Hall in the South Building.

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