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.

<em>Joseph and Potiphar's Wife</em> (detail), Guido Reni, about 1630

Joseph and Potiphar\’s Wife (detail), Guido Reni, about 1630

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!

<em>The Music Lesson</em> (detail), Gerard Ter Borch, about 1668

The Music Lesson (detail), Gerard Ter Borch, about 1668

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.)

<em>Mars & Venus, Allegory of Peace</em> (detail), Louis Jean François Lagrenée, 1770

Mars & Venus, Allegory of Peace (detail), Louis Jean François Lagrenée, 1770

4. Drapery Creates a Theater

In a theater, when the curtain lifts we forget reality and surrender to illusion.

In this painting of two lovers, Lagrenée’s Mars and Venus, Mars lifts a curtain to seduce us into the scene; Venus sleeps innocently, unaware of our intrusion. (More about this painting here.)

<em>Portrait of Louis XIV</em> (detail), Workshop of Hyacinthe Rigaud, after 1701

Portrait of Louis XIV (detail), Workshop of Hyacinthe Rigaud, after 1701

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.