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Recto and Verso
Here's a little quiz for you. Do you know the meaning of the terms, "recto" and "verso?" No, they're not related to the human anatomy or to Italian literature. Yes, they are art related. Yes, they have to do with painting and drawing. When you go to an art gallery, what you see hanging on the wall is "recto." That is, unless you happen past Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum and wander in to "Verso: The Flip Side of Master Drawings." That's right, "verso" is the back side of a work of art - painting, drawing, even sculpture (unless it's carved in the round, in which case it's considered not to have a back side). Very well, why would anyone want to hang paintings and drawings exposing their "backsides?" Let me rephrase that. Why would anyone want to display the back of a work of art? Well, some artists have been known to do some pretty interesting things on the back of their work.

In 1882, John Singer Sargent painted one of his most important works, El Jaleo. The preliminary sketch for the work was done on the back of a store receipt for a new hat he'd just bought in Madrid, Spain (store receipts were a lot bigger then than they are now). The location of the store and date place him in the city and make it likely he attended a dance performance at a nearby cafe that inspired the piece. The date on the receipt (October, 1879) has been used to more precisely date the painting. Another artist, the Renaissance sculptor Domenico Aimo da Varignano, in agreeing to build a family mausoleum, conveniently (and no doubt wisely) sketched out the design for the tomb on the back of the contract. Pablo Picasso, on one side of a sheet of paper sketched a nude portrait of himself. On the other side was a portrait of a mother and child. In this case, it might be hard to say which he considered recto and which was verso. The Fogg show displays both sides.

Perhaps the most common reason for there being art on both sides is that for hundreds of years, even as late as the early nineteenth century, paper was an expensive commodity. So long as there was even so much as a few square inches of usable space on either side, artists kept scraps of it around upon which to do quick sketches or "doodles." Several Michelangelo drawings obviously bear this rationale. Add to this, during wars, it was often difficult to obtain art supplies. A Fernand Léger watercolour entitled The Wrecked Plane (on the back bears the preliminary sketch for his much more successful painting, The Cardplayers. Again, though the painting was probably saved for its recto, the verso may be more interesting and important from an archival point of view.

Perhaps one the most beautiful versos, though one not included in the Harvard show, is the back of Leonardo da Vinci's famous 1474 portrait of Ginevra De' Benci. There he painted a heraldic design with the motto "Beauty adorns Virtue," while along the back edge of the wood panel, he created a decorative motif utilising juniper plants, symbolising chastity, which would have been an appropriate choice inasmuch as the painting was a marriage portrait. The National Gallery of Art in Washington has always displayed both sides of this work. The juniper bush, "ginepro" in Italian, was also a pun on her name.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
8 June 2001

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