What Makes a Master Drawing

What Makes a Master Drawing?

Our installation seeks to develop an answer to a basic question in the field of art history. While the term “master drawing” was traditionally restricted to works produced by the most celebrated “master” artists—such as Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo—it has come to encompass a much wider scope. From Baroque architectural studies to contemporary abstractions, the drawings exhibited here span four centuries of Western art and cover a wide range of media. They also challenge viewers to question their notions of “great art,” which might not be by a famous and familiar artist; the drawing need only exhibit mastery in its composition and execution.

Ezra Austin, Jonathan Chan, Trisha Datta, Amy Hudson, Hyejin Jang (Class of 2019)

Art through the Eyes of the Amateur

Drawings exist in a nebulous realm within the world of art. They serve as intimate glimpses into the creative process and can be examples of great art in and of themselves. As most of us are taking our first class in art history, studying drawings provides us with the opportunity to see different stages in the artistic process. In this installation, the class hopes to shed light on the contentious issue of what comprises a master drawing —what is the role of artistic celebrity? How can drawings with different functions be compared? While we cannot provide definitive answers to these questions, we seek to explore aspects of this debate. We believe that every drawing here constitutes a master work. Some pieces show impeccable use of technique and medium, while others reveal artists’ reactions to issues of their time, or demonstrate how artistic styles have shifted over the centuries.

Esin Yunusoglu, Alicia Wang, Hannah Waxman, Kate Yung Yi Wang, Caroline Zhao (Class of 2019)

Masterpieces through the Ages

From simple sketches of inspiration to resplendent finished compositions, drawings capture the rawness of human emotion, expression and creativity. This installation showcases thirty drawings in the Princeton University Art Museum which span a diverse range of genres, time periods, and artists. Throughout the semester, we have attempted to understand the merits that a drawing must possess in order to be considered a “master drawing.” In fact, the meaning of “master drawing” has been revised over the ages, evolving from its associations with the master-student relationship in the guild, workshop, and academy to being considered synonymous with artistic excellence. From the finesse of the pen stroke to the splendor of colored washes, each of these drawings boasts qualities that transcend the ordinary and encapsulate the essence of what it takes to be considered a masterpiece.

Shea Minter, Kai Xin Tai, Timothy Thong, Tashi Treadway and Christopher Umanzor (Class of 2019)


This installation was organized during the fall 2015 semester by the students of “Freshman Seminar 101: Drawings Up Close,” taught by Professor Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann in the Department of Art and Archaeology and Laura M. Giles, Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, Curator of Prints and Drawings in the Princeton University Art Museum. The students chose thirty drawings from the Art Museum’s collections that were purchased fully or in part by the Department of Art and Archaeology’s Laura P. Hall Memorial Fund. This fund was endowed through the bequest of Princeton history professor Clifton R. Hall (1884–1945), whose collection of more than three hundred prints and drawings, is  housed in the Art Museum.