A review by Julia Gasper
Did you know that Raphael the painter wrote poetry? That is one thing I learnt today from the special exhibition of drawings by the Florentine master who was a little younger than Leonardo and Michelangelo. In Cat. 47, among studies for human figures, Raphael drafts a sonnet, in elegant italic script. There is another love-poem in Cat.50, where the drawing shows a man, standing fully clothed, extending his hand to a woman, who is undraped and reclining gracefully.
This exhibition of drawings by the artist whose name is synonymous with drawing, brings together examples from various collections, ranging from the merest doodle of a sketch to finished masterworks intended for engraving. They are done in ink, chalk, charcoal, lead-point or brush, and almost all portray what fascinated Renaissance artists so much, the beauty of the human form. Supposing you want to see the exhibition but are pushed for time, which dozen or so drawings are the most unmissable? Try these.
Cat 1. Portrait of a young man, really only a boy, probably Raphael himself as it resembles a self-portrait he painted later. The boy’s expression is dreamy and innocent and a little bit enigmatic.
Cat. 12 The Virgin and Child with a pomegranate. In this beautifully balanced composition, the Madonna’s right hand is on a book, indicating that she can read, and is the child’s first teacher. The child’s expression of innocent curiosity is exquisitely captured, and the mother’s girlish face has just the ghost of an indulgent smile.
Cat. 25 Leda and the Swan. This is an idealized Venus-like figure, comparable to Boticelli’s Venus. The swan’s undulating neck echoes the curves of her hips and shoulders. It has to be said that Raphael’s women generally have faces of a rather bland, ideal beauty. If you want to see older faces, and those contorted with violent feeling, you have to look at drawings of men.
Cat. 31 Study of three men carrying the body of Christ. Their back muscles and shoulders convince us of the weight of what they hold.
Cat. 41 Study for The Last Supper. In a deliberately Leonardo-like composition, the disciples sit at a long table under a vaulted ceiling. The columns divide it geometrically. The drawing is left unfinished, with four figures missing on the right-hand side.
Cat. 56 Wrestling male figures, writhing and contorted.
Cat. 57 Apollo playing the viol. Raphael has captured the intense expression on the musician’s face as well as his exact posture.
Cat. 63 Alexander the Great and Homer. This drawing appears to imitate the manner of a classical frieze, with figures of exactly the same height ranged along it in a row.
Cat. 70. Massacre of the Innocents. Soldiers with swords lunge and hack at women who flee or cower protectively with their babies. Densely packed and dramatic, this shows how the artist would start with nude figures to get the anatomy right, before adding the drapery in a final version.
Cat. 95. God appearing to Moses in the Burning Bush. With its furling clouds and flames, this is quite explosive in its fierce intensity, almost comparable to the work of Blake.
Cat. 101. A man carrying an older man on his back. Slightly grotesque.
Cat. 110 Study for the Three Graces. Three ideal female forms grouped harmoniously.
Cat. 120 Heads and hands of two apostles in the Transfiguration. The head of the young man is the picture chosen for the exhibition’s posters. Raphael has taken a face of classical Greek beauty and suffused it with expression and feeling that is never there in antique statues. This face is full of reverence and wonderment, with a touch of that tenderness so typical of Raphael.
Exhibition: RAPHAEL: THE DRAWINGS
Dates: 1 June–3 September 2017
Venue: The John Sainsbury Exhibition Galleries
Tickets: £12/£10 concessions
Publication: The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue of the exhibition with essays by Achim Gnann, Ben Thomas, and
Catherine Whistler. £25 available at the Museum or online at www.ashmolean.org/shop
Supporters: The exhibition research project is supported by The Leverhulme Trust. The exhibition is supported by: The William Delafield
Charitable Trust; The Friends of the Ashmolean; The Stockman Family Foundation; The Tavolozza Foundation;
Stephen Ongpin; Dr Martin Halusa. The exhibition catalogue is supported by The Wolfgang Ratjen Foundation.
Credits: The exhibition has been curated by Dr Catherine Whistler; Dr Ben Thomas; with the assistance of Angelamaria Aceto.
About RAPHAEL (1483–1520)
Born in Urbino at Easter 1483 to the painter, courtier and writer, Giovanni Santi, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (known as Raphael) was in his
father’s workshop from boyhood. His experience of the artistically rich environment of the court of Urbino was a formative one; by the end
of 1500 he was already a magister or independent ‘master’. A ferocious appetite for learning through drawing is apparent in Raphael’s early
sheets. In a study of 1500–1, probably a self-portrait, he used black chalk skilfully to model the head, conveying a sense of sculptural form and
catching the fall of light on unlined skin. The seductive treatment of the face overpowers any uncertainties in the construction, and the scale
and finish of this elaborate work speak of ambition and pride in artistic achievement.
Although Raphael in the early 1500s tested and adapted in drawing the visual language of leading artists in Umbria such as Luca Signorelli,
Pintoricchio or Pietro Perugino, it was in Florence that, faced with the achievements of Leonardo and Michelangelo he experimented with
new modes of drawing. Themes of the complex relationships of mother and child, and of the figure of the heroic male nude in aggressive
action, sparked his imagination as he improvised, observed or composed in drawings that are charged with graphic energy. Florence offered
an extraordinary artistic repertoire, crucial to shaping Raphael’s imaginative approach, and the fusion of naturalism and grandeur found in
his drawings was stimulated by his study of classical and contemporary sculpture. Raphael’s style of drawing is, however, unique and clearly
different from that of his contemporaries.
In 1508 Raphael moved to Rome at the request of Pope Julius II and he soon began work in the Stanza della Segnatura, the Pope’s private
library. Over the following decade, with Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo as his principal rivals, Raphael received patronage from
private citizens and further papal commissions including the designs for tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. At the height of his success and
fame, in 1514, he was appointed architect of St Peter’s, following the death of Bramante. Even in the final part of his career, when he was
overburdened with work in Rome, Raphael was making drawings of extraordinary complexity such as those related to the Transfiguration
commissioned by Giulio de’ Medici (the future Pope Clement VII) for Narbonne Cathedral.
Raphael died on 6 April 1520 after suffering for ten days with a high fever. His death was reported in a letter to the great patron of the arts,
Isabella d’Este: ‘Here no one is talking of anything else other than the death of this good man […] who has finished his first life; but his second
life, that is Fame, which is not subject to Time or Death, will be eternal […].’