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Culture

An Encounter with the Greats

A review of The National Portrait Gallery's new exhibition, The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt

BY Constance Watson | ConstanceWatson   /  17 July 2017

There is something romantic about the word ‘encounter.’ What is it? Possibly, that an encounter can be one of many things: a moment, a meeting, a conversation, a knowing look, a kiss – the word encounter is, therefore, up to interpretation. It is equivocal.

From the late Latin word ‘incontrā,’ meaning ‘in front of’ (in + contra), ‘encounter’ – strictly speaking – has a more confrontational meaning than we associate it with today. Encontrer, in French, literally means ‘to confront.’ Long before an encounter was romanticised as a stolen moment or a silent understanding, it was used to describe a hostile meeting or a confrontation.

Today, however, with many possible meanings, an encounter is not necessarily something combative, in fact, far from it. Where there was once hostility, the word is instead shrouded in mystery. The real romance in the word ‘encounter,’ I think, is that it is more often than not understood to be a moment between two people. An encounter is therefore largely misunderstood between any one else, other than the two people involved. History, narration and explanation can seek to illustrate an encounter, but really it is never quite known by anybody other than the two people involved.

Studies of Old Men’s Heads and Three Women with Children, c.1635-36. Rembrandt Harmensz.

It is this enigma, this riddle, this secret, this abyss of uncertainty that the National Portrait Gallery is attempting to bring to life in its latest exhibition, The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt. The exhibition shows sketches that, according to the gallery, appear to capture a moment of connection, an encounter between artist and sitter.

The cynic in me cannot help but question the extent to which these sketches capture an encounter between artist and sitter any more than any other renowned portraits. It is likely that the pictures exhibited here are perceived to encapsulate encounters because they are sketches – they are therefore more rushed; it is as if the artist is hurriedly working against time to document a precious moment.

There are a large number of unidentified artists exhibited here which demonstrates Curatorial Director Dr Tarnya Cooper’s desire to create a sense of an encounter and to charge a moment with mystery and emotion, rather than simply to display swanky sketches. However, the crowd-pleasers are also out in force, with the greats such as Hans Holbein the Younger, Rembrandt and da Vinci, decorating the walls of the exhibition, which opened this week and will continue until October.

Portrait drawing of Sir John Godsalve (c.1505-1556). Hans Holbein the Younger

It is a small exhibition, taking up only two tiny rooms, and as such it feels as if the exhibition comes to a rather abrupt end. I was left feeling that the sense of an encounter could be stretched more, or explored further. And this is largely because what is on display (the majority of which has been lent to the gallery by The Queen from her private collection) is rather lovely. The sketches are neat and simple and easy to look at. Whether or not they capture an encounter, they display some of history’s most skillful sketches, and that makes this exhibition worth visiting in itself. The level to which you are charmed and captivated by the suggested encounter is entirely up to you.