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The Role of Drapery in Art

Updated: Oct 20, 2019

In art history, drapery refers to any cloth or textile depicted, which is usually clothing. Cloth folded, hanging, wrapped, and fluttering, was full of expressive potential, and drapery studies helped convey such emotions as anger, piety, and religious fervor.


Achilles and Pentheselia on the Plain of Troy, with Athena, Aphrodite and Eros (c. 323 B.C.E.)

Painting drapery goes back several thousand years. The Greeks may have been among the first to do so. They learned how to counterbalance figures creating more natural movement and expression. Much of the stiffness is eliminated in the fabric and creases are shown in a relaxed fashion. Drapery and fabric continued to play a role in art through the next hundreds of years. At this point in Art History, the fabric itself was becoming an artform and a measure of skill and mastery of the artist.

The entire history of art is full of representations or indications of cloth in use, chiefly of course as the dress of figures, but also frequently as the dress of scenes. The use of cloth as an element, expressive in itself has developed within a large number of pictorial conventions, creating a kind of visionary history of fabric, traceable entirely through its poetic life in pictures and sculpture. Clothes are seen as fabric made into objects that convey messages beyond the power of the cloth itself.


"The Annunciation" by Luca Giordano (c. 1672)

Drapery has often been an escape route for painters, liberating them from reality and the perception that it is their role necessarily to represent the tangible world.

Christian iconographers of the Middle Ages adopted the Classical tradition of drapery and clothed Christ, the Virgin, and the Apostles in vaguely togalike garments, with little relation to historical accuracy. A gentle interplay of soft folds characterized the European Gothic style from the 13th century onward, and that tradition modified by Classical influences such as the use of linear patterns was taken over by artists of the Renaissance who painted diaphanous, figure-revealing garments. Mannerist and Baroque drapery emphasized the theatrical potentialities of drapery.

At the same time, many painters began to employ in their studios specialists to draw and paint dress and drapery.

Yet, the role of drapery always remained secondary to the figure. Those artists who used drapery well did it in a way that allowed the drapery to magnify all of its expressive qualities, while still directing the viewer to the main subject. The drapery was to create situations, emotions, attitudes, and status in a way that it was felt and not noticed. Drapery became valuable tool for the artist to magnify the figure.


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