Van Eyck’s Only Remaining Drawing Gets Its First Outing in 10 Years

The sketch of a beatific old man is the only undisputed surviving drawing by van Eyck.

Jan van Eyck, Picture of an old man, (1435-40). DeAgostini/Getty Images

Though many museums remain closed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, a museum in Dresden, Germany, where institutions have begun to reopen, is about to put a drawing on display that’s fabulous enough to coax people out of their homes. The extremely rare and fragile drawing was made by Jan Van Eyck as a preparatory sketch for a portrait of an elderly man. Some believe the man is Cardinal Nicola Albergati, while others dispute this theory. Made sometime between 1435 and 1440, the drawing is so precious that it hasn’t been displayed since 2010. Even then, the artwork was only on view for a week.

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Dresden’s royal Residential Palace is the locale in which the Van Eyck drawing will be displayed, alongside approximately 200 other works of art from the institution’s collection. For those in the United States, the Van Eyck drawing and many others is scheduled to come to New York for an exhibition at the Morgan Library in 2021; hopefully, the shifting conditions created by the coronavirus pandemic won’t upend this planned trip.

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There are several technical elements that make this particular Van Eyck drawing so mesmerizing. It’s the only undisputed surviving drawing by the artist, and the only surviving Van Eyck drawing that’s certain to have been made in preparation for a painting. It includes 16 lines of the artist’s notes about specific color hues and facial hair details, and the paper itself is so fragile that even showing it in public is a risk to the artwork’s continued survival.

However, like all great works of art, the drawing is more than the sum total of these details. The man Van Eyck has drawn looks to be as real as though he’s standing right in front of you, staring knowingly into the distance. His lips are pressed together and the lines of his aged face create a slump, but even so, you can tell that he’s smiling.

Van Eyck’s Only Remaining Drawing Gets Its First Outing in 10 Years