Drawing Basics: David Jon Kassan on "Study of the Head of an Old Man" by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

Jean-Baptist Greuze's drawing, Study of the Head of an Old ManDavid Jon Kassan discusses Jean-Baptist Greuze's Study of the Head of an Old Man.

Jean-Baptist Greuze's drawing, Study of the Head of an Old Man
Study of the Head of an Old Man
by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, ca. 1765, red chalk, 15? x 12?. Collection J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

Looking at Drawings: Study of the Head of an Old Man by Jean-Baptist Greuze

by David Jon Kassan

This drawing by Greuze is thought to have been done from a painting of an old blind man titled The Blind Man Duped, which was exhibited in the salon of 1755. It was drawn 10 years later to serve as a model for an engraving that was produced as a teaching aide for students. It was popular at the time to copy this engraving, which explains why there are so many inferior copies of the image, and why the versions are reversed.

One of the fundamental exercises you learn in any drawing basics course is copying master drawings. This is an excellent drawing to copy. I have learned a tremendous amount about the marriage of form and function by drawing it. This close cropping of the head allows careful study of how line drawing and expression are linked. The formal qualities of Greuze’s line work emphasize the emotion of the subject rather than take away from it, in contrast to what one often sees in contemporary works, where the flourishes of an artist’s style are trumpeted over the substance of the subject. This piece is an excellent example of the balance of style and substance.

The artist drew like a painter, with a quick gestural approach that comes from the shoulder–not the wrist. It is this gestural quality in the line that adds an energy and charge to the marks. Large, sweeping lines describe the foundation upon which he develops smaller marks that follow the topographical form of the subject. The artist utilizes different line qualities by varying the pressure of his touch to the surface—lighter toward the top of the head, closest to the single light source, and stronger, darker marks toward the bottom of the head and into the shadow. Greuze’s conception of seeing his subject in three-dimensional space is clearly evident in his use of such sculptural line work.

The most wonderful aspect of this drawing for me is the life the artist gives to this drawing through the expression he has captured in the man’s furrowed brow and eyes.

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