Visitors to “Drawing in Silver and Gold” might wonder if human eyesight has seriously devolved in the last half-millennium. The exhibition’s first two rooms contain dozens of washed-out, minutely detailed drawings from the Renaissance, many 5 inches by 4 or smaller. The thin contour lines and subtle tonal modulations in these portraits, landscapes, and religious scenes demand sustained study, preferably up close. True, the lights in the galleries of old-works-on-paper shows are typically dimmed a bit to protect the art, but the impression is still strong: Either our contemporary eyes have been ruined by glowing screens and tablets, or squinting was big in the 15th century.

These delicately rendered, eyestrain-inducing images all stem from the early Renaissance’s go-to drawing medium: metalpoint. The Flemish, German, Swiss, and Italian artists who created these ghostly pictures didn’t draw them by smearing charcoal or brushing ink; instead, they scratched thin rods of gold, silver, or lead on paper coated with an abrasive ground. Metalpoint produces more or less indelible marks—making it a durable medium for sketchbooks—but it only allows artists to draw uninflected lines in pale shades of gray or reddish-brown. Within these constraints, a skilled hand could nonetheless produce a range of effects, from soft, illusionistic shadows on flesh to angular, abstract patterns in folds of cloth.

Organized by the National Gallery of Art and the British Museum, “Drawing in Silver and Gold” features more than 100 metalpoint drawings dating from 1390 to 2013. The show is organized chronologically, and it’s front-heavy: Most of the work on view was created prior to 1600. After the 16th century, as paper became cheaper and more readily available, artists gravitated toward pen and ink for more spontaneity and impact. Ultimately, metalpoint went from an essential tool for studio practice to an archaic novelty. The final rooms of “Silver and Gold” include a few rediscoveries and revivals of the unforgiving medium, but it seems like a loose, unnecessary coda to an otherwise cohesive story.

The limitations of metalpoint—the challenge of creating dark shadows or dynamic contour lines—give many of these drawings a semi-abstract quality. In the first room of the show, followers of Flemish artists like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden jump back and forth between pattern-making and super-smooth mimesis in ways that can make the viewer briefly forget what century the work came from.

Take, for example, the copy of the Mary Magdalene panel of van der Weyden’s “Braque Triptych,” created circa 1455-65. Although the identity of the artist is unknown, “Saint Mary Magdalene” masterfully distills the hyper-illusionistic yet otherworldly quality of van der Weyden’s original oil-on-wood triptych, currently at the Louvre.

In the roughly 7-inch-by-5 drawing, a flurry of light, crosshatched lines convey the volume of Magdalene’s soft chin and slightly parted lips; heavy tears cling to the corners of the saint’s almond-shaped eyes. Magdalene sits in three-quarter profile, yet her right eye appears to be as close to the viewer as her left—causing a strange torquing and flattening of form. This is typical of Netherlandish art of the period and of van der Weyden’s work specifically: The surfaces and volumes of objects seem lavishly tactile, yet the pictorial space they exist in defies physics.

Despite all the fussy attention given to the saint’s grief-stricken face, the straight lines and hard angles throughout the rest of the drawing look more appropriate for a cubist still life than a Renaissance altarpiece. Light and shadow cling to the edges of stiff, architectonic draperies; distinctions between positive and negative space erode in flurries of repetitive mark-making. Viewers can almost feel the artist fighting the metal stylus with every sharp, stabbing line.

In the hands of German master Albrecht Dürer, metalpoint could be used to create waves of overlapping textures akin to engraving: “A Dog Resting” (1520) is exhaustively rendered with flowing curlicues of hair and shadowy crosshatching. As with “Saint Mary Magdalene,” the level of vivid detail excites the senses, yet the image overall is so stylized that it appears more like a product of the artist’s imagination.

Some artists in the period would combine metalpoint with other media in order to heighten contrasts between light and shade. In Hans Holbein the Elder’s “Portrait of a Woman” (c. 1508), the artist worked in layers of silverpoint, leadpoint, charcoal, and ink. Vivid white highlights dot the folds of the woman’s lips and lightly hooded eyes; by contrast, the less-manipulated clothing and drapery that make up the rest of the drawing are blurred, barely there.

And then, of course, there’s Leonardo da Vinci. As an apprentice to Florentine artist and goldsmith Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo mastered metalpoint and went on to experiment with it throughout his career. Under his teacher’s influence, he created ornate, decorative images—like “A Bust of a Warrior” (c. 1475/1480), which features a lion’s head embedded in the breastplate of a fantastically adorned suit of armor. Later studies of a horse, hands, and a male nude, all circa 1490, showcase the muscularity Leonardo could bring to this seemingly stiff and unyielding medium—pushing and repositioning contours, defining sinew and bone with deep shadows, and, well, just generally being Leonardo da Vinci.

There are some stunning miniature works in the show from the late 16th century by Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius, and a handful of lovely studies from 1633 by Rembrandt, but in the show’s last act, there’s less to love. The silverpoint revival of the 19th century seems faddish and fey; the portraits of children by William Holman Hunt and Joseph Edward Southall are competently done, but cartoonish. None of the 20th-century drawings in silverpoint by Otto Dix, Avigdor Arikha, and Jasper Johns will surprise viewers familiar with the artists’ respective oeuvres. More importantly, none of them suggest how the medium could find a new life outside of the simple fetishization of the artistic past.

For a time, working artists saw advantages in metalpoint in addition to its constraints, and their studios accordingly filled with scratchy, silvery images. At its best, “Drawing in Silver and Gold” shows how artists in the past stored and shared motifs, and how they wrestled with the technology of the moment to communicate their pictorial ideas. Viewers might mourn the loss of artists who seemed so adept at transcending the limitations of their historical moment—but they shouldn’t mourn the loss of those limitations.

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