Drapery—artfully folded fabric—has been used by European artists for centuries, from ancient Greek sculpture to contemporary photography. As I prepare for the studio course I’m leading this Wednesday on sketching drapery after the Old Masters, I’ve been thinking about why.
1. Drapery Serves Composition
Artists make strategic use of drapery to aid composition, the arrangement of elements that leads our eye through a scene. In Peter Paul Rubens’s The Entombment, for example, drapery and color unite to heighten the viewer’s emotional response.
2. Drapery Accentuates the Body
Drapery serves to cover, but also reveal, the human form.
In Guido Reni’s painting of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, for example, fabric serves to accentuate the woman’s pearlescent bare shoulder, underscoring her attempt to seduce both her companion at left—and the viewer!
3. Drapery Lets an Artist Show Off
Satin, silk, fur, linen, lace—drapery gives artists an excuse to prove their virtuosity at rendering light, surface, and volume.
The subject of this painting is a music lesson, but our eye is drawn to the woman’s satin and fur garments, not her lute. (I discuss this picture in more depth in a video here.)
4. Drapery Creates a Theater
In a theater, when the curtain lifts we forget reality and surrender to illusion.
5. Drapery Is Political
Fabric is power.
In this court portrait of Louis XIV, the king’s dazzling ceremonial cape speaks of command in every detail. It’s covered with the fleur de lis of the Bourbon dynasty, while the interior is lined with ermine—every black dot the tip of a single animal’s tail.