The invention of drawing

This week, while installing the MIA’s summer exhibition Marks of Genius: 100 Extraordinary Drawings—a show that spans nearly 600 years of drawing—I’ve been thinking about the origins of the medium. Its beginnings, like the beginnings of art, are murky, mythical, and lost.

Jean-Pierre Norblin de la Gourdaine's "The Invention of Drawing," an etching from 1773, now in the MIA's collection.

Jean-Pierre Norblin de la Gourdaine’s “The Invention of Drawing,” an etching from 1773, now in the MIA’s collection.

According to the ancient Roman writer Pliny the Elder, both the Egyptians and Greeks take credit for the first picture. Pliny, however, writes that there is agreement that “it began with the outlining of a shadow.” He recounts a story of a young woman from Corinth, the daughter of a potter, who drew the outline of a young man’s shadow on a wall. She was in love with him and traced his profile before he departed on a journey abroad so she could remember him clearly. Her father produced a relief of her portrait, pressing clay into the outline of his silhouette and then firing his copy of the first drawing in a kiln.

This story was a popular subject in art in the late 18th century. The French etcher Jean-Pierre Norblin executed the charming depiction of the scene shown above, now in the MIA’s collection. A fanatical admirer of Rembrandt, Norblin depicted the Corinthian maid and her beloved in Rembrandt-like costumes and shadows. The young man with his stylish moustache, theatrical dress, and impressive pike (a spear mounted on a long pole) looks like he walked right out of Rembrandt’s Night Watch, the masterpiece that now hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Norblin depicted the invention of drawing as both dangerous and romantic. The young maiden, so focused on capturing her beloved’s likeness, stands alarmingly close to the lamp that illuminates him and casts the shadow on the wall—her hair and bonnet appear as though they might catch fire. I love the way she is tenderly grasping his shoulder, their close stance implying the intimacy of lovers—as well as artists and their subjects. It is a poignant depiction of the genesis of drawing, art’s most private and personal medium.