Issues of Diversity within Lines of Beauty

The exhibition Lines of Beauty: Master Drawings from Chatsworth opened at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery on 14th February 2020, featuring a selection of more than 50 artworks from Chatsworth House’s Devonshire collection.

Opening section of the exhibition Lines of Beauty: Master Drawings from Chatsworth, Millennium Gallery, Sheffield. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

Divided into six sections, the entrance area presented an art-historical timeline and overview of the aesthetic preferences of successive owners of the Devonshire collection of ‘Old Master’ drawings – most notably William Cavendish, the 2nd Duke of Devonshire (1672-1729). His appreciation for (primarily) Italian, Flemish and Dutch figurative works from the 14th-17th centuries was the most significant influence on the development of these celebrated fine art holdings.

Detail from Annibale Carracci’s 16th century study for a portrait of a youth, on display in the Lines of Beauty exhibition. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

The central section of the display was arranged thematically, commencing with representations of figures from classical mythology. This was followed by drawings of religious scenes and biblical narratives, positioned at eye level across the full length of the main gallery’s back wall; and studies for individual and group portraiture produced during the Italian Renaissance, the Baroque period, and the Golden Age of Flemish and Dutch realism. The concluding theme showcased a small selection of landscapes drawn and painted by artists such as Domenico Campagnola (1500-1564) and Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641).

Detail from a landscape by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), on display in the Lines of Beauty exhibition. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

The final section of the exhibition documented and critiqued the range of drawing techniques and materials that impacted on the key compositional characteristics of the artistic genres and periods in focus.

Detail of a 16th century drawing showing a woman with braided hair, by Italian Renaissance artist Alessandro Bonvicino, also known as Moretto da Brescia [The Moor of Brescia] (c.1498-1554). Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

Lines of Beauty: Master Drawings from Chatsworth was initially developed and curated as a collaborative project, involving contributors from Chatsworth House, Museums Sheffield and the University of Sheffield. Consequently, researchers affiliated to all the partner organisations were invited to participate in the exhibition’s public engagement and collection interpretation programme.

Exhibition view of Lines of Beauty at the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

For my part, I took this opportunity to propose a gallery talk on ‘Black Portraiture(s)’ – comparing how maestros from the Renaissance and Baroque eras depicted individual portraits and group scenes of people from a diversity of ethnic, religious and socio-cultural backgrounds. My research highlights that some of the key artists foregrounded in Lines of Beauty included people of African descent in their portfolios of drawings and paintings – most notably Filippino Lippi (c. 1457-1504), Vittore Carpaccio (c. 1460-1526), Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669).

For example, Italian artist Vittore Carpaccio’s brown ink and red chalk drawing of ‘Cardinal Bessarion presenting relics to the three representatives of the Scuola della Carita’ (on display in Lines of Beauty, and shown below left) is contrasted with the following painted scene from c.1494 featuring a black Venetian gondolier (shown in detail, below right).

Building on from this art-historical and visual analysis of an African presence in Renaissance and Baroque figuration, my proposed gallery talk also focuses on selected contemporary figurations by women artists of colour, who have openly referenced and applied – as well as deliberately subverted – specific techniques and styles from the eras under examination within their 21st century representations of black and brown corporealities. Key women artists in focus from the African-Caribbean diaspora include: Renée Cox (b. Colgate, Jamaica, 1960), Elizabeth Colomba (b. Épinay-sur-Seine, France, 1976), and Fabiola Jean-Louis (b. Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, 1978).

Titled ‘Issues of Diversity within Lines of Beauty,’ my illustrated presentation – followed by an audience Q&A – was originally scheduled to take place at the Millennium Gallery, Arundel Gate, Sheffield, on Thursday 14th May 2020, 6-7pm.

UPDATE: In view of the current social distancing procedures (formally advised by Public Health England since mid-March 2020) that were put in place to decelerate and combat the spread of Covid-19/Coronavirus, this session will now not take place as a face-to-face event. However, readers of the Museum Geographies blog are welcome to contact me, via the ‘Your Feedback’ page on this site, to request a digital copy (sent via reply email) of the illustrated presentation summary that would have been distributed to attendees – featuring selected, full-colour images of the presentation slides.

Although Sheffield’s ‘Lines of Beauty’ exhibition at the Millennium Gallery is now closed, it is hoped that different sections of the Devonshire collection will tour to other venues during 2021. Further details are available online at https://www.museums-sheffield.org.uk

Website: https://www.museums-sheffield.org.uk/museums/millennium-gallery/exhibitions/current/lines-of-beauty-master-drawings-from-chatsworth

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