The American artist Anthony Panzera (b. 1941) in 1975–76 he spent a year of independent study in Florence and in 1995 was elected by his peers as a member of the National Academy of Design; he served as professor of studio art at New York City’s Hunter College from 1968 through 2014. Panzera’s most influential forerunner is Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), whose notebooks comprise more than 7,000 pages exploring a variety of topics, including the evolution of anatomical drawing from ancient Greece down to the Renaissance.
The master intended to distill them into a single book but never achieved that goal. Having studied the notebooks for three decades, focusing especially on Leonardo’s work on human proportion, Panzera produced the 2015 book The Leonardo Series. Through 65 of his own drawings and three brief essays, he offers there a comprehensible and incisive analysis of Leonardo’s ideas. Exquisitely executed in sanguine pencil on buff paper, these drawings were exhibited in 2012 at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art (SUNY New Paltz).
Over time the pages of Leonardo’s notebooks came to be scattered among various institutions, primarily in England, France, and Italy.
They feature scribbled notes, often accompanied by miniscule drawings. Eager to understand what the master meant, Panzera set to work deciphering, organizing, and analyzing the material, then tested
Leonardo’s measurements of the human form by making his own drawings.
Using the originals as a guide while rivaling their accuracy, Panzera drew directly from live models with an elegant vitality. His creations transcend mere anatomical studies to become, through Panzera’s imagination,
dynamic explorations of real faces and bodies; some hold graceful poses while others make arabesque gestures, yet all of them arrest our gaze.
Now housed at Windsor Castle, Leonardo’s Folio 10 Plate 27 contains a very small drawing of a man shown both frontally and facing left. Duplicating the horizontal lines Leonardo used to divide the body into six parts, Panzera’s version (AP 152) transforms the original into a lesson in delicate facial details and tonal compositions, even capturing the minute vein formations on the hands and feet.
Another Leonardo drawing from Turin’s Royal Library depicting the proportions of the head has been carefully re-examined by Panzera (AP 102).
Here Panzera tests what he calls Leonardo’s “most unusual module, the distance between the pupils of the eyes.” With his usual precision, Panzera verifies a second module, “finding the exact corners of the eyes, or more specifically, the edge of the zygomatic bone surrounding the orbital cavity of the eye.”
Complementing these two drawings is AP 173, Panzera’s exquisite study disputing Leonardo’s theory that the “foot is as long as the whole head of a man.” (According to Panzera’s calculations, “the foot is only loosely similar to the size of the head.”) In a playful dialogue across time, Panzera goes beyond Leonardo’s drawing of a tiny profile
head alongside the sole of an equally tiny foot (Royal Collection, Windsor Castle) to present instead a magnificent male nude demonstrating the proportional relationships of the foot with other body parts. His crouching model has a handsome face, seen in profile, that details the brow’s furrows and the folds caused by the turn of his neck.
The torso is slightly contorted in a three-quarter view. The model’s left arm, executed with fine shadows revealing muscle mass, bone structure, and veins, hangs in front of the torso. The fingers of the left hand gently grasp the heel of a slightly elevated foot while the other foot stays firmly on the ground. The right arm is drawn slightly outstretched away from the torso. The right hand is upturned in a classical ballet gesture to finish the line of the body.
The other leading influence on Panzera’s artistry has been the French academician William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905). Initially inspired by the Bouguereau touring retrospective that visited Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum in 1984–85, Panzera has learned to create an array of Bouguereau’s subtle effects in his own oil paintings.
His devotion became apparent to all in his 2017 exhibition William Bouguereau: It’s All in the Details, presented at Studio 7 Fine Art Gallery in Bernardsville, New Jersey. This was essentially an homage to the master’s excellence in depicting hands and feet bold reworkings of Bouguereau’s familiar full-length depictions of attractive shepherdesses in Arcadian landscapes and languid peasant girls with dark melancholic eyes gazing at the viewer. Panzera has transformed them into a new way of appreciating Bouguereau.
Instead of full-length figures, he paints for example only the faded gray hem of The Water Girl (Dahesh Museum of Art), which hangs above her beautifully executed feet. In another work, the same scene has been cropped to help us delight in the black opening of the yellow jar poised on the girl’s sloping shoulder essentially an arrangement of full and half circle contours. Completing this geometric symphony are the scooped neck of her white blouse with its tiny round button and the mirroring of creases visible on her white sleeve and pearl-gray dress. Seen together, Panzera’s Bouguereau paintings highlight both artists’ capacity to perceive the structures that underlie
a dreamy vision of a distant, romantic world.
Panzera’s admiration of Bouguereau’s techniques was further expressed in a 2015 exhibition at Hunter College that explored the memento mori tradition. A key picture in that group, Memento Mori IV, Bouguereau’s Medium, depicts a black satin-covered table adorned with items that constitute a sort of horizontal epitaph for the master. At left
we see a palette with its dots of oil paint and a mahl stick propped on a wooden block. Behind them are a classical relief sculpture and four bottles of mediums and solvents. The marbled-paper-bound portfolio symbolizes the master’s dedication to drawing, as well as the annotations he made in his sketchbooks with exact specifications for primers and varnishes. At far right rests the skull symbolizing mankind’s mortality, the touchstone of all memento mori (“remember, you will die”) images.
This spring Panzera will present a show of Nantucket scenes titled Seascapes: Shifting Sands, Seas and Skies at Studio 7. These images are completely of his own devising, unconnected to specific historical works
yet indirectly informed by such past masters of light as Martin Johnson Heade and Frederic Church. His Sunrise over Sconset and Moors is a balanced composition of four horizontal bands. The black-gray foreground depicts marshland studded with such barely visible structures as the water tower evoking a lighthouse placed just left of center.
Represented by thin mauve brushstrokes, the moors lead our eye back to a dark strip of marshland, above which glows the massive sky bursting with colorful cloud formations. Another picture, Quidnet 1, Summer, is a remarkable display of foreshortening, in which we seem to be walking on the sand. Flanked by grass-covered ridges, an empty central passageway wafts our eye up to the cerulean sky with its windswept clouds a moment of pure visual transcendence.
Whatever his subject may be, Panzera clearly revels in the aesthetic conversations he conducts across time with earlier masters. The paintings and drawings he produces not only delight our eyes, but also renew viewers’ curiosity about how artists through the ages have observed and then transformed their findings into works uniquely their own.