Louis XIV / Wikimedia Commons
By Zhenya Gershman / 10.19.2010
J. Paul Getty Museum
1. Drapery Serves Composition
Artists make strategic use of drapery to aid composition, the arrangement of elements that leads our eye through a scene. In Peter Paul Rubens’s The Entombment, for example, drapery and color unite to heighten the viewer’s emotional response.
2. Drapery Accentuates the Body
Joseph and Potiphar\’s Wife (detail), Guido Reni, about 1630
Drapery serves to cover, but also reveal, the human form.
In Guido Reni’s painting of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, for example, fabric serves to accentuate the woman’s pearlescent bare shoulder, underscoring her attempt to seduce both her companion at left—and the viewer!
3. Drapery Lets an Artist Show Off
The Music Lesson (detail), Gerard Ter Borch, about 1668
Satin, silk, fur, linen, lace—drapery gives artists an excuse to prove their virtuosity at rendering light, surface, and volume.
The subject of this painting is a music lesson, but our eye is drawn to the woman’s satin and fur garments, not her lute. (I discuss this picture in more depth in a video here.)
4. Drapery Creates a Theater
Mars & Venus, Allegory of Peace (detail), Louis Jean François Lagrenée, 1770
In a theater, when the curtain lifts we forget reality and surrender to illusion.
5. Drapery Is Political
Portrait of Louis XIV (detail), Workshop of Hyacinthe Rigaud, after 1701
Fabric is power.
In this court portrait of Louis XIV, the king’s dazzling ceremonial cape speaks of command in every detail. It’s covered with the fleur de lis of the Bourbon dynasty, while the interior is lined with ermine—every black dot the tip of a single animal’s tail.