10 February 2014

A Glimpse of the Master's Genius

An idea that might vanish in the twinkling of an eye is captured on an old scrap of paper

There were curious little treasures of art and bits of antiquity strewn about. Among them were gems, small figures of bronze, medieval carvings in ivory and even a sample of the soil of Rome.

As interesting as any of these relics was a large portfolio of old drawings, some of which, in the opinion of their possessor, bore evidence on their faces of the touch of master-hands. Very ragged and ill conditioned they mostly were, yellow with time, and tattered with rough usage; and, in their best estate, the designs had been scratched rudely with pen and ink, on coarse paper, or, if drawn with charcoal or a pencil, were now half rubbed out.

You would not anywhere see rougher and homelier things than these. But this hasty rudeness made the sketches only the more valuable; because the artist seemed to have bestirred himself at the pinch of the moment, snatching up whatever material was nearest, so as to seize the first glimpse of an idea that might vanish in the twinkling of an eye. Thus, by the spell of a creased, soiled, and discolored scrap of paper, you were enabled to steal close to an old master, and watch him in the very effervescence of his genius.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun

Drawing: Rembrandt, Self-portrait; pen, brush and ink on paper, c. 1628