Drapery has always had the power to convey an incredible amount of sensuality, character, and skill, and there is a surprising amount of variety in the way artists have depicted fabric. Realism is not the only criteria for lusciousness, however. Looking at and comparing the quality of drapery in particular works can reveal the styles and personalities of the artists themselves, though your eyes may get lost in the folds.
Da Vinci’s Drapery for a Seated Figure truly gives an effortless sense of heavy, smooth fabric through precise rendering and delicate understanding of light. It was one of sixteen studies done on linen canvas in preparation for a larger painting. It’s hard to believe this was just a sketch, attributing to the paramount importance of understanding form during the Renaissance.
Athena Nike Adjusting her Sandal is proof of the somewhat contradictory notion that a block of stone and a chisel could be used to capture wet drapery clinging to flesh. Created during the Classical period of Greek sculpture, it exemplifies all the innovations in realism, technique, and attention to detail.
Matisse was a master of color, pattern, and composition, which makes his treatment of cloth all the more interesting. In his Odalisque with Magnolias, every element, including the fabric wrapped around her body, reflects each color in the room, from the green sheets to orange fruit. What makes this work so remarkable is the way the whole spectrum of color is used while the painting itself remains cohesive. The folds here have a more ambiguous quality, as they take on the same abstract nature as every other object.
Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man is, for me, the most powerful painting in existence, as the piercing glance and red cloth are chilling in their accuracy, and every twist of the chaperon seems like a piece of music. Lorne Campbell writes about the way he painted the eyes:
“The white of the eye is laid in white mixed with minute quantities of red and blue. A very thin scumble of red is brought over the underlayer, which is, however, left exposed in four places to create the secondary highlights. The veins are painted in vermilion into the wet scumble. The iris is ultra-marine, fairly pure at its circumference but mixed with white and black towards the pupil. There are black flecks near the circumference and the pupil is painted in black over the blue of the iris. The principal catchlights are four spots of lead white applied as final touches, one on the iris and three on the white, where they register with the four secondary lights to create the glistening effect.”