An Art Lesson from Michelangelo at Cleveland Museum of Art

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Michelangelo may never have intended for people to see his sketches, but a rare look at a couple dozen of them demonstrates how the Renaissance artist created.

“He was using these drawings 500 years ago as working tools,” said Emily Peters, curator of prints and drawings at Cleveland Museum of Art.

Michelangelo Buonarroti burned many of his drawings, which Peters said was not common at the time.

“He was quite secretive. He knew that other artists were very interested in his design ideas,” she said.   

Twenty-five drawings on loan from the Teylers Museum in the Netherlands are on view in “Michelangelo: Mind of the Master” at Cleveland Museum of Art, which organized the exhibition with the J. Paul Getty Museum in California.

The artist’s two-sided drawings are displayed on pedestals near replica murals of Michelangelo’s related works, including part of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Italy.  

Michelangelo exhibit at Cleveland Museum of Art

"Michelangelo: Mind of the Master" exhibition at Cleveland Museum of Art [Mary Fecteau/ideastream]
Four of the drawings correspond to figures in his design for the Sistine Chapel, including muscular nude males. In the drawings, the artist worked out the details of the men’s poses.

“Michelangelo used them to kind of punctuate the narrative scenes in the middle of the chapel, and his contemporaries were completely astounded by these figures,” Peters said.

His attention to physical anatomy and method of sketching from live, nude models left a mark on the art world.

“Michelangelo's practice, and particularly his drawings, were kind of introducing these ideas to his generation, but they were carried through to generations," Peters said.

Study of a striding male nude, to the left; studies of anatomical details (left) on one side of paper (1504 or 1506) and Study of torso and left leg of a male nude; separate studies of the left leg (right) on the other side (1525–30) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. [Teylers Museum]

The drawings also show Michelangelo sketched some parts of the figures multiple times.

“These projects didn't spring out of some kind of you know original genius, but he really had to work every day of his life and labor to create these great works,” Peters said.

Michelangelo worked until his death at 88 in 1564.

The surviving drawings on view in the exhibit were at one point part of a notable art collection owned by Queen Christina of Sweden. The Teylers Museum has held them since 1791.

"Mind of the Master" is a ticketed exhibition at Cleveland Museum of Art through January 5. 

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