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December 8, 2008

Drawing the Classical Figure

At the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center
December 23, 2008 – March 8, 2009

"In order to attain the highest perfection in painting it is necessary to understand antiquities, nay, to be so thoroughly possessed of this knowledge that it may diffuse itself everywhere."
Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1608

LOS ANGELES—The ability of ancient sculptors to perfect the human form has long been revered by later artists as the ideal way to render the figure. Drawing the Classical Figure, on view December 23, 2008 – March 8, 2009 at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, brings together more than 40 drawings—spanning 400 years of art history—to examine how classical sculpture influenced the representation of the human figure.

Throughout the ages, artists turned first and foremost to ancient Greek and Roman sculpture as a guide to perfecting their representation of human anatomy, musculature, and proportions. Many young artists went to Rome to study and draw after ancient sculptures, which was considered to be the foundation of a young artist’s education. By imitating ancient precedents, artists developed a classical figural type that remained the predominant mode of representation for centuries.

“This survey of 15th through 19th century drawings illustrates how draftsmen evoked the sculptural grandeur of classical art,” explains Stephanie Schrader, associate curator of drawings, “Artists such as Giorgio Vasari, Agostino Carracci, and Jacopo Tintoretto portrayed heroic males with Herculean proportions, while others like Abraham Bloemaert, Joseph Heintz the Elder, and Pierre-Paul Prud’hon rendered sensual females that recalled statues of Venus.”

Drawing the Classical Figure demonstrates how ancient sculpture had a powerful impact upon artists of all schools—Italian, Dutch, Flemish, French, and British. The exhibition includes rarely exhibited drawings, such as Satan Exulting over Eve by William Blake, Votary of Bacchus by Nicholas Poussin, and The Children of Niobe Being Slain by Apollo and Diana by Jan de Bisschop.

The show also features A Draftsman in the Capitoline Gallery in Rome—a recently acquired drawing by Hubert Robert—which undoubtedly alludes to the French artist’s own experience in Rome, where he lived from 1754 to 1765. This large sheet— masterfully drawn in red chalk—depicts a draftsman studiously working in one of the most important collections of ancient sculpture. Robert placed the draftsman in the near distance and depicted him much smaller than the surrounding statues. In so doing, Robert made the artist appear dwarfed by antiquities and evoked the effects of ancient artistic achievement on artists through the ages.

The history of figure drawing displayed in this exhibition is also brought to life at the Getty’s Sketching Gallery, located in the East Pavilion of the Museum.  Similar to a classical European art academy, this unique space is filled with works of art from the Getty’s permanent collection and plaster casts where visitors can participate in the tradition of drawing from works of art.  Artist-in-residence Aaron Smith will offer a contemporary perspective on drawing the classical figure in a studio course in the Sketching Gallery.  The course is scheduled for Thursdays, January 8, 15, 22, and 29 and Sundays, February 1, 8, 15, and 22, 1-3 p.m.  For reservations and information, please call (310) 440-7300 or visit

Drawing the Classical Figure is curated by Stephanie Schrader, associate curator in the Department of Drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Laura Patrizi, senior staff assistant in the Department of Drawings.

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Desiree Zenowich
Getty Communications

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