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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Recto and Verso

El Jaleo, 1882, John Singer Sargent (see preliminary sketch below)
Here's a little quiz for you. Do you know the meaning of the terms, "recto" and "verso?" No, they're not related to the human anatomy or to Italian literature. Yes, they are art related. Yes, they have to do with painting and drawing. When you go to an art gallery, what you see hanging on the wall is "recto." Of course special exhibits have been known to accentuate the "verso" as was the case several years ago at  Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum and their "Verso: The Flip Side of Master Drawings" show. That's right, "verso" is the back side of a work of art--painting, drawing, even sculpture (unless it's carved in the round, in which case it's considered not to have a back side). Very well, why would anyone want to hang paintings and drawings exposing their backsides? Let me rephrase that. Why would anyone want to display the back of a work of art? Well, some artists have been known to do some pretty interesting things on the back of their work.

Preliminary Sketch, El Jaleo, 1882, John Singer Sargent (verso),
recto was a store receipt for a new hat.
In 1882, John Singer Sargent painted one of his most important works, El Jaleo. The preliminary sketch for the work was done on the back of a store receipt for a new hat he'd just bought in Madrid, Spain (store receipts were a lot bigger then than they are now). The location of the store and date place him in the city and make it likely he attended a dance performance at a nearby cafe that inspired the piece. The date on the receipt (October, 1879) has been used to more precisely date the painting. Another artist, the Renaissance sculptor Domenico Aimo da Varignano, in agreeing to build a family mausoleum, conveniently (and no doubt wisely) sketched out the design for the tomb on the back of the contract. Pablo Picasso, on one side of a sheet of paper sketched a nude portrait of himself. On the other side was a portrait of a mother and child. Okay, in this case, it might be hard to say which he considered recto and which was verso (the Harvard show displayed both sides).

Mother and Child, 1903,
Pablo Picasso (recto)
Nude Self-portrait, 1903,
Pablo Picasso (verso)

Perhaps the most common reason for there being art recto and verso is that for hundreds of years, even as late as the early nineteenth century, paper was an expensive commodity. So long as there was even so much as a few square inches of usable space on either side, artists kept scraps of it around upon which to do quick sketches or "doodles." Several Michelangelo drawings obviously bear this rationale. Add to this, during wars, it was often difficult to obtain art supplies. A Fernand L├ęger watercolor titled The Wrecked Plane is on the back of the preliminary sketch for his much more successful painting, The Card Players. Again, though the painting was probably saved for its recto, the verso may be more interesting and important from an archival point of view.

The Insignia, Wrecked Plane,
1917, Fernand Leger (verso)
The Card Players, 1917,
Fernand Leger

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