I’ve been a huge fan of Anne Desmet’s work since I was a teen. They’re like Piranesi in tiny, wood-engraved form with a formalist appeal akin to M.C. Escher. She frequently lifts motifs from historic sites with the Babylonian Tower of Babel as a constant.
Anne Desmet: Kaleidoscope at Pallant House Gallery is a presentation of new work, incorporating a host of additional materials and techniques like lithography, monoprinting, and even the use of marbled paper. As ever, her trademark process is wood engraving which she frequently combines with linocuts.
An introductory display prefaces the main exhibition space, showcasing Desmet’s work in a variety of sizes, enabling visitors to appreciate the level of minute detail one can achieve with wood engraving. Her interest in urban landscapes is plain to see, from ancient ruins to modern cityscapes, as well as her fragmentary approach to the pictorial space, bordering on collage and serialisation.
In the main room, a single wall features more early work, this time incorporating more colour and vibrancy to certain British landmarks such as Bath Circus. But most importantly, you see her early interest in the Tower of Babel; Desmet’s version is a slightly variant of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s depiction in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. The beauty of this wall is that you see how the Tower of Babel manifests and morphs throughout her work.
Uncharted Terrain is a collage of different parts of the Tower and other ancient sites, resulting in an undulating visual journey. Another recent print is the Wood Engraver’s Tower, which collages several accoutrements into a construction site for a new Tower of Babel (or perhaps its destruction).
The latter’s woodblock can also be seen in the central display case which evokes a workbench, accompanied by tools, small proofs, and prints on 40 razor shells.
The other three walls are dedicated to Desmet’s tall and kaleidoscopic collages inspired by a new-found fascination for kaleidoscopes. Suddenly, her architectural fragments take on a global, even cosmic emphasis imbuing thematic strands concerning humanity, destruction, and the passing of time.
Nothing is more emblematic of the Pre-Raphaelites than the legend of King Arthur. Obsessed with medieval chivalry, damsels in distress, and dreams of the romantic past, Sir Thomas Malory’s literary compilation Le Morte d’Arthur, published in 1485, was the perfect catalyst for their radical revolution against the Royal Academy’s ideals.
The William Morris Gallery’s current The Legend of King Arthur exhibition is a stunning showcase of the quest for the Holy Grail. Funnily enough, the one-room touring exhibition begins and ends with the death of King Arthur, a nod to the source material that inspired them.
The high point of the show is evidently the two original Stanmore Hall tapestries from the collection of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, designed by Edward Burne-Jones and woven under William Morris’ direction using three recreated historic high-warp looms at Merton Abbey; they represent the second and last panel in the six-piece tapestry series. To me, they are the Sistine Chapel tapestries of the Victorian era, the culmination of everything that Pre-Raphaelite art sought to achieve, like Sir Galahad kneeling before the Holy Grail and its guardians.
But this exhibition also presents together for the first time William Morris’ only oil painting La Belle Iseult (Tate) with the dress he designed (William Morris Gallery) and had Jane Morris model in for said painting. The only piece missing is the private collection sketch of Jane wearing it, which is helpfully reproduced on the caption.
A further unique highlight is John William Waterhouse’s personal copy of Alfred Tennyson’s Poems. Recently discovered in a private collection, it contains the artist’s sketches and annotations. Set within a display dedicated to the Lady of Shalott, this is the only venue to display it during the exhibition’s national tour.
Admirably for a show of such brevity, it manages to highlight lesser-known characters from the Arthurian tale, display a good proportion of works by female artists (Evelyn De Morgan, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, Julia Margaret Cameron, Elizabeth Siddal) and differing media, and even highlight their sense of humour to the otherwise ‘serious’ subject matter.
The Legend of King Arthur: A Pre-Raphaelite Love Story runs until 22 January 2023 at the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, London, https://www.wmgallery.org.uk/
Vorticism is one of those movements that, in my experience, very rarely receives public attention. In fact, the only major figures who probably come up more often than others is Wyndham Lewis, the short-lived movement’s co-founder, and perhaps David Bomberg.
The Courtauld’s exhibition on Helen Saunders’ drawings and watercolours, one of only two female members in the movement, is fascinating. She appears to have started working in the avant-garde abstract style before moving towards a more post-Impressionist aesthetic inspired by artists like Cezanne.
As someone whose taste for semi-abstraction is admittedly quite narrow, several watercolours from Saunders’ Vorticist period grabbed my attention.
One striking piece of a bending figure – perhaps a malevolent puppeteer – was trimmed into an irregular heptagon by the artist herself, compressing the pictorial space to draw our eyes further to the figure’s arching form.
In another, Cabaret, a pair of anthropomorphic double basses perform against a backdrop of bright spotlights (bare paper), with a conductor on the left-hand side.
Finally, I admire the way little figures form a leading line towards the face of a ‘giant’ in Vorticist Composition, Yellow and Green (formerly Gulliver in Lilliput). Saunders use of colour contrasts and negative spaces delightfully (and dizzyingly) guides your eyes across the picture plane, each time noticing more and more brush hairs sticking to the surface.
These were part of a major gift in 2016 to the Courtauld by Saunders’ descendant Brigid Peppin, which resulted in the largest public collection of her work.
To add to this, the fruit of the Courtauld’s Painting Pairs project led to Saunders believed-to-be lost painting Atlantic City to be discovered underneath Wyndham Lewis’ Praxitella (Leeds Art Gallery), which can be seen upstairs in a display of its own.
Fuseli and the Modern Woman at the Courtauld Gallery, London, is like a provocatively sexy catwalk.
Featuring 50 of Henry Fuseli’s private drawings of his wife Sophia and other stylish characters in society, there is a feeling that these were made as some sort of external release for the artist’s repressed interests and desires, like some kind of guilty pleasure.
In fact, I’m just going to say it; this was Fuseli’s porn stash.
He’s not even hiding it, as seen from the phallic shapes decorating one pen-and-ink drawing of a woman’s bodacious backside, arms outstretched across a dressing-table with phallic supports for legs. She looks practically ready for a spanking (please, God forgive me for writing these words).
Fuseli clearly liked the view from behind. Not only does he accentuate the way a free-flowing dress drapes over his subject’s large buttocks, practically teasing her sensuous underlying structure, the fact he rarely reveals their faces in such drawings is indicative of his approach to them as objects of sexual desire.
And in the drawings where faces are revealed, the subjects aren’t necessarily the prettiest, and often coated under layers of make-up. Their expressions vary from bored and uninterested to devilishly sinister, as if they appeared out of a satirical cartoon.
What connects all of this, however, is Fuseli’s remarkable attention to fashionable details in the subjects’ outfits and whimsical hairstyles. I guess he has a clothing fetish too? Perhaps, or rather an awareness of how clothing can elicit feelings in the observer via unique visual effects, such as sheer clothing or suggestive geometric shapes.
Unwittingly, these drawings also offer a kind of documentation of fashionable clothing in Fuseli’s time. To my untrained eyes, there were a lot of ribbons and bows, massive hats and braided hair, and overall loose dresses secured at the waist for an hourglass figure. A fair bit of freeing the nipple too when it comes to courtesans, but they also get puffy sleeves!
Additional observations of note: 1) Fuseli consciously framed his subjects as actual pictures, seen in the way he fills in the background towards clean edges and corners, and 2) it’s fun to see the occasional scribble on the side of a sheet where he was testing that his pen actually works.
Fuseli and the Modern Woman: Fashion, Fantasy, Fetishism runs until 8 January 2023 at the Courtauld Gallery, London, https://courtauld.ac.uk/
Lucian Freud: Plant Portraits at the Garden Museum, London, is a wonderfully illuminating exhibition that says much about how the artist saw his surroundings. If you want to know how Lucian Freud paints people, you should look at how he depicts plants.
A selection of rarely-seen childhood drawings of plants preface this one-room show which, looking forward, carry their infantile appearance well into works from his mid-twenties. In many ways, this retention of a strong, linear approach to draughtsmanship with minimal modelling heavily characterised the artist’s idiosyncratic early style in painting. One such portrait etching of Kitty Garman (first wife) and a rose in the foreground represents this rather well, as well as the equal importance of both types of ‘model’.
For Freud, plants served as alternatives to human models, and in quite a literal sense; he let them grow as they please in the studio, never wanting to impose of them, and this natural freedom gave his paintings character and enabled Freud to imbue them with emotional connotations. One of them has even taken pride of place in his favourite red upholstered chair on wheels, which he adamantly requested his sitters occupy during portrait sessions.
They were clearly personal to him, even choosing to start a mural of cyclamen in the dining room of a secluded 17th-century manor house he bought with his second wife Caroline Blackwood; the exhibition recreates an unfinished one he started in a private bathroom at Chatsworth upon invitation in 1959, leaving behind his paints and equipment too!
When depicting plants anywhere, he was adamant to portray them as they were, and as they were growing/decaying in time. From zimmerlande and banana trees to spikey gorse sprigs and an unkempt garden, these life models offered plentiful opportunities for Freud to develop his focus and attention to detail, which carries over to his impressive awareness of his environment in his larger portraits of people. Even the top-down view has parallels in his idiosyncratic choice of perspective.
This exhibition shows that plants were more than just props in a studio; they were its lifeblood, its ecosystem, and they had a huge impact on Freud’s perspective on life, observation, and the impact of urban development.
Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist at the National Gallery, London, although wonderful, is also a slightly messy exhibition. In fact, some of the thematic rooms are so good that you forget this is a chronology of his observations in the Alps, Italy, and the Low Countries.
The backbone is Dürer’s sketchbook drawings, which record his encounters with foreign citizens, landscapes, and exotic animals. I appreciated the digital reconstruction of his silverpoint sketchbook; 3 double-sided sheets are shown nearby. It was also humbling to see the only surviving page from Dürer’s original diary of his 1520-21 journey to the Low Countries opposite the only complete copy of said diary.
The Kunsthistorisches Museum’s copy (Vienna) of the Rosenkranz Madonna (Národní galerie, Prague) represents the high point of Dürer’s Venetian commissions. As for the influential figures he met there, I would’ve wanted more relevant works by Giovanni Bellini and Jacopo de’ Barbari, specifically the latter’s prints which impacted Dürer’s Adam and Eve, explored in depth with a prep. drawing and works by Dirck Vellert, Jan Gossaert, and Conrad Meit. Otherwise, Dürer’s graphic output is surprisingly well contextualised throughout.
Dürer’s painted and drawn portraits of anonymous individuals around Germany (1518-21) easily steal the show, graced with exceptional works by Lucas van Leyden, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Gossaert.
Alongside powerful Passion drawings, the finale offers a phenomenal trio: Dürer’s St Jerome (1521; Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon), Hans Hoffmann’s copy of Dürer’s study of an old man (original in the Albertina, Vienna) – from which the painting was based – and van Leyden’s haunting response that same year (both Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).
This exhibition shows clearly, if nothing else, the extent of an artist’s interpersonal connections in the Early Modern period, a fact easily forgotten.
The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Dürer’s Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist ran until 27 February 2022 at the National Gallery, London, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/
Jacopo de’ Barbari and Albrecht Dürer
In my review above, I mentioned how I hoped for more relevant works by Jacopo de’ Barbari in the room focusing broadly on Dürer’s Italian adventures; they met in Nuremberg in 1500.
Shown in this room is Jacopo’s painting of A Sparrowhawk (1510s) from the National Gallery collection, which makes logistical sense for inclusion. However, the caption for it actually refers to Jacopo’s engravings of male and female nudes, and that he ‘did not want to show his principles to me [Dürer] clearly’ regarding representing human proportion.
To my disappointment, Jacopo’s prints of Apollo and Diana (1503-05) and Mars and Venus (1510-12) were not exhibited. The former had a particular influence on Adam in Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504), while the latter is perhaps Jacopo’s response years later.
Nonetheless, the jealousy that Dürer had for Jacopo concerning this particular subject led him to trawl through Vitruvius and develop his own system of proportions, which he then applied to his studies for Adam and Eve (British Museum, London), leading eventually to the posthumous publication of his Four Books on Human Proportion (1532-34).
As the exhibition shows, Adam and Eve had a widespread impact on both German and Netherlandish artists. Jan Gossaert made his own pastiche (Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) and Conrad Meit adapted the group into delicately-carved boxwood figurines (Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha).
The inclusion of a Dirck Vellert drawing (Musée du Louvre, Paris) was interesting, which closely follows the outline of Dürer’s proportional drawing of Eve. His own equally detailed prints could’ve added a further dimension to contemporary responses to those by Dürer; however, one of his stained-glass works fills this void in the next room.
Dürer’s studies of St Christopher
In my review, due to character limits, I omitted an excellent room featuring one of my favourite drawings.
Part of this room focused on Dürer’s friendship with Joachim Patinir and their depictions of St Christopher. They seemed to be close; in Antwerp, Dürer noted in his diary on 3 May 1521 that Patinir invited him to his wedding.
That year, Dürer recorded a gift to Patinir of four St Christopher drawings on grey paper; the British Museum sheet is believed to be the only surviving one of the four. Such figure studies were then used by Patinir in his own work.
Another possible part of this generous gift may have been the sheet of nine studies (Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin), one of my favourite sheets of drawings in the world!
This sheet is a great example of Dürer’s fluid inventiveness and confident draughtsmanship. Each sketch, with barely a correction in sight, considers different ways for the saint to interact with the Christ Child on his back, sometimes with no interaction at all.
Like a comic-strip, each pose and perspective offers a new story to the narrative; they could easily be stitched together to form a dramatic short film about an old man carrying a baby across far-flung landscapes.
Adding to this drama is the variation in drawn lines, evoking somewhat dynamic lighting with the smallest changes to the pressure of the pen, one of my favourite things to observe in drawings and even in prints.
Dürer and the angels of Venetian painting
Some of the things I’ve always appreciated in Venetian painting are the music-playing angels which quietly sit below the Madonna on the steps of her throne. My favourite has always been Cima da Congeliano’s Montini Altarpiece (1505-07) in the Galleria Nazionale di Parma.
This trope heavily influenced Albrecht Dürer’s own Madonna and Child compositions, having also borrowed the idea of an enthroned Madonna backed by a canopy. He used it several times throughout his career, from the Rosenkranz Madonna (1506) to a much-planned but unexecuted, ambitious Virgin and Child with Saints in 1521-22, dubbed by one scholar as ‘perhaps the greatest tragedy of Dürer’s fate as an artist’. The latter is known only from a large group of drawings, of which some from the Louvre are in the Dürer’s Journeys exhibition.
Dürer’s angels have a certain gravitas to them, and a certain melancholy – cue the engraving from 1514 – that makes them stand out as independent figures of interest. Perhaps it’s their spectacularly vibrant wings, or the angularity of their drapery? Or maybe it’s the fact they look less like ideal entities from Heaven and more like Earth-born fleshlings pondering an existential crisis.
Even the animated drawing of music-making angels (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) is akin to a festive genre scene in some rural Northern European town.
Unlike the little putti we are so accustomed to seeing above such paintings – so lofty and carefree – perhaps we ought to consider these musical angels as our mediators, tuning the strings of our human lives towards a perfect harmony worthy of divine ascension.
Dürer and Venetian Madonnas
In my opinion, the Haller Madonna (1496-99; National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) in the opening room of Dürer’s Journeys felt a little underused and unsupported.
Making its first UK debut, this vibrant double-sided picture is an excellent example of Dürer’s early assimilation of Italian art. More specifically, his important first trip to Venice in 1494-95 introduced him to the rich colours used in Venetian painting and an influential friendship with the city’s leading artist Giovanni Bellini.
Painted for local clients in Nuremberg, the painting has clear parallels with other Madonna and Child images produced by the Bellini workshop. The strongest of these is having the Madonna hold the upright Christ child with a curtain behind her in a contrasting colour. This device later emerges as a full canopy in the Rosenkranz Madonna (1506; Národní galerie, Prague), which Bellini also did.
I can see why some works in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, were absent in the exhibition, of which Giovanni Bellini’s Contarini Madonna (1475-80) and Madonna degli Alberetti (1487) are relevant examples. However, the National Gallery’s own Virgin and Child (1480-90) by Bellini upstairs could’ve been used to illustrate his influence on Dürer’s colours and compositions (which they mention in the caption!).
In fact, the only Bellini work in the exhibition is the Assassination of St Peter Martyr (1505-07), where a curtailed body of a bullock was copied from Dürer’s Prodigal Son engraving (1496).
The painting’s other influences weren’t illustrated either, only mentioned: the open window (Netherlandish) and apparently a Martin Schongauer engraving.
As expected, there was little they could say about the Lot and his Daughters on the back, but at least there was a sightline to one of the Apocalypse woodcuts (1498) to link both their flaming towns in the background.
Dürer and St Jerome
Only just beginning to appreciate the subtle teasing of St Jerome images throughout the Dürer’s Journeys exhibition from beginning to glorious finale.
Paired with the Haller Madonna in the opening room is the NG’s double-sided picture of the penitent saint in the wilderness from 1496, robes discarded on the ground and about to beat his chest with a rock. Meanwhile a proud stylised lion observes from behind. Dürer’s atmospheric background and rich use of colour betrays his nascent knowledge of Venetian painting.
Two years earlier, Dürer drew a similar-looking lion in gouache (Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg), probably adapted from heraldic imagery or sculpture; he probably didn’t see a real one until 1520-21 in the Netherlands.
Nearby, this same wilderness scene is reproduced with greater animation and emotional intensity in a large engraving from about 1496-97. Here, the precise burin lines accentuate the jagged cliff edges, Jerome’s musculature, and offers a rich tonal variety across the image.
The same room also shows Jerome in his study in one of Dürer’s earliest woodcuts from 1492, made to illustrate an edition of the saint’s letters published in Basel. Fast forward to 1514 and he makes that beautiful engraving with the saint in a brightly lit interior with excellent perspective.
Finally, in March 1521, ‘I painted a Jerome in oils, taking care over it, and gave it as a gift to Rodrigo [Fernandes de Almada] the Portuguese’ (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga), complemented in the exhibition by homages from Hans Hoffmann, Lucas van Leyden, Joos van Cleve, and Marinus van Reymerswale (Ashmolean Museum; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).
Disclaimer: The above content was originally published in 2021 as an Instagram series.
For the next few months, there is a sweet little opportunity to sample the British Museum’s collection of drawings by Raphael and his workshop, including Giulio Romano, Giovanni Francesco Penni, Giovanni da Udine, Perino del Vaga, and Polidoro da Caravaggio.
On the Raphael side, a thematic highlight of this display is their collection of his full-size cartoons, both pricked and ‘auxiliary cartoons’. Cartoons were usually destroyed in the process of transferring their outlines to their intended surface, so the fact they survived at all is a miracle. The pricked outlines and indentations from scoring serve as a visual record of this delicate but violent process.
Worthy of note is the rare public appearance of the cartoon for the Mackintosh Madonna (National Gallery, London); little known to the public and completely repainted, the latter is on display in Gallery A. This is my first time seeing it in the flesh and it’s always a tender moment. It’s also quite cute that a related metalpoint drawing of the Madonna and Child’s heads reversed is shown nearby, one of the British Museum’s more famous drawings (for good reason).
If you’re familiar with the NG’s tiny painting of An Allegory (Vision of a Knight) then you’d love its equally tiny cartoon with all its little holes around the outlines of its figures. I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing it feels to hold this drawing against the light, an effect that the current display sadly doesn’t reproduce.
Additionally, there is also a small cartoon fragment for a putto in the Poetry fresco on the vault of the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, a taste of the rough draughtsmanship that these types of drawings often exhibit.
Finally, one also gets to meet their two ‘auxiliary cartoons’ for St Andrew and an unidentified apostle in the extravagant Transfiguration, Raphael’s last panel painting.
These were independent reference drawings based on a transferred design from a normal cartoon, which have then been drawn to a high level of finish to aid with the painting process. Seven of these have survived the test of time for this painting, all heads for figures in the lower half; I’ve seen five so far!
This display also offers quite a broad representation of Raphael’s draughtsmanship, featuring drawings in metalpoint, black and red chalks, and pen and ink/wash.
Proudly gracing the marketing material is the very attractive female saint, one of Raphael’s most underrated drawings. Having spent nearly three years researching it, I’m clearly biased.
Once thought to be a portrait of Raphael’s sister – impossible; she was born in 1494 – it may have been drawn for a painting of a saint (as indicated by the halo) around 1504. The drawing barely gets exhibited, so I was pleased to see her recent appearance in the Albertina’s Raffael exhibition in 2017-18.
One of the British Museum’s most famous drawings is the little metalpoint drawing of the heads of a Madonna and Child from the so-called Pink Sketchbook. Its carefully built-up lines offer a fascinating contrast next to the rapidly sketched Madonnas in pen and ink, embracing the influence of Leonardo da Vinci.
There are no shortages of nudes here. Raphael’s creative interpretation of the back of Michelangelo’s David indicates his reception of art in Florence where he would stay for four years until 1508. This newfound interest in human proportions and anatomy quickly redefined his style towards a more classical approach that carried him through to the end of his life in Rome.
From a complex compositional study for the Baglioni Entombment to his design for Marcantonio Raimondi’s Massacre of the Innocents engraving, nudes lay at the heart of Raphael’s creative process, the best of them done in chalks, before being redrawn with drapery added. The British Museum’s drawing of a skeleton for one of the Entombment figures would’ve been an amazing addition to this display.
Finally, a pen-and-wash study for the Disputa fresco in the Stanza della Segnatura gives visitors an excellent idea of the kind of drawings that mediated between rough sketches and detailed studies of individual elements. Such compositional drawings had numerous uses: partly as working proofs to show clients how the finished work might look, but ultimately for laying the groundwork in terms of lighting and modelling.
On the other side of the room in the British Museum display is an eclectic mix of drawings by Raphael’s workshop assistants and collaborators. Most of these are related to identifiable final products.
A portrait of Giovanni Francesco Penni by Giulio Romano offers a unique face-to-face encounter with the managing force behind Raphael’s workshop. This portrait was used in the Allocution of Constantine fresco in the Sala di Costantino.
Although tricky to identify his hand, Penni was a competent artist. Two of his modelli drawings are on display: the first for Jacob’s Dream in the Pope’s Loggia, and the second a Dormition and Coronation of the Virgin which may possibly be an intermediate study for the Monteluce Coronation (Musei Vaticani, Vatican City), of which he painted the entire lower half.
One can’t talk about Raphael’s workshop without mentioning Giulio Romano, the more innovative of the bunch. One of the drawings shown is a study for the ceiling octagon of the Camera di Attilio Regolo in the Casino della Grotta, part of the garden of the Palazzo Te, his masterpiece in Mantua.
For the ‘lesser’ members of the workshop, the examples exhibited generally showcase their specialisms. Giovanni da Udine was well-known as a painter of still lifes and stucco decoration, so naturally he was also proficient in tapestry design, here represented by a design for the Giuochi di putti tapestries for Pope Leo X.
In addition to Polidoro da Caravaggio’s drawings for friezes, there are several drawings showing a more uncharacteristic side of his art: a schoolmistress with her pupils, a Madonna and Child, and a sheet of studies for the figure of a Baptist, perhaps for a free-standing statue.
As for Perino del Vaga, a study for the vault of the Loggia degli Eroi in the Villa del Principe (Palazzo di Andrea Doria a Fassolo), Genoa, retains a freshness of his experience with dramatic battle scenes painted by Raphael in the Vatican.
More interesting for me, however, is a gorgeous red-chalk Descent from the Cross. Full of rich, velvety goodness, the composition is a pleasing assemblage of various figure groups and expressions.
For a concise review of The Credit Suisse Exhibition: RAPHAEL, please click here.
The Early Umbrian Years
Opening the National Gallery show is an elusive, faintly drawn portrait of a young boy whose features are generally believed to be that of a 15/16-year-old Raphael (British Museum, London). His eyes show an ambition and determination that foreshadows his eventual success as the most sought-after artist in Renaissance Italy.
Grouped together with the glimmering St Sebastian (Accademia Carrara, Bergamo) and a head study for the great Oddi Coronation for San Francesco al Prato, Perugia – both from about 4 years later – the ensemble sets a strong example for Raphael’s technical proficiency as a brilliant painter and excellent draughtman.
Following on, the National Gallery’s highly-prized Mond Crucifixion for San Domenico, Città di Castello, represents Raphael assimilating and transcending the sweet style of Perugino. The only indicator of its true authorship is from the signature at the bottom of the cross.
Raphael was equally capable of producing small devotional pieces, such as the great diptych pair of St George and St Michael (Louvre, Paris).
The National Gallery’s Vision of a Knight is also displayed, but sadly without its Three Graces counterpart (Musée Condé, Chantilly); they were not intended as a diptych, but one probably served as a cover for the other, or perhaps they were displayed back-to-back. The cartoon for the Vision can currently be seen at the British Museum’s Raphael and his School display.
Surprisingly, we still know very few concrete details about Raphael’s early years, and missing works of art certainly don’t help at all. His earliest documented commission refers to the Baronci Altarpiece for Sant’Agostino, Città di Castello, on 10 December 1500; Raphael was 17 and already called magister (master) in the contract. Heavily damaged in 1789 by an earthquake, the painting was sawn into fragments and dispersed.
Alas, none of the surviving fragments are in the exhibition, but it is a pleasure to see both surviving sheets of drawings united: the all-important compositional drawing (Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille) and a double-sided sheet (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). However, the Lille sheet is not shown double-sided, hiding the excellent head study for St Nicholas of Tolentino.
Florence and Perugia
I’ve always found Raphael’s early Florentine Madonnas quite unappealing. The colours tend to be quite sombre, the infants too fleshy (sometimes ugly), and an obvious battleground between the Umbrian and Florentine schools of painting.
However, one can’t deny the significant improvement in his adoption of Florentine chiaroscuro, as can be seen in the Terranuova Madonna (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) and Ansidei Madonna (National Gallery).
In Florence, Raphael was heavily indebted to Leonardo da Vinci, as the trio of elegantly poised female portraits evidently shows: the first Raphael’s own pen-and-ink copy of La Gioconda (Louvre), the second La Muta (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino), and the third a portrait drawing of a young girl historically thought to be Raphael’s sister (British Museum).
Similarly, the young artist also knew of Leonardo’s Leda and the Swan, as a drawing in the Royal Collection at Windsor attests. Leda’s meandering figura serpentinata pose went on to inspire the National Gallery’s St Catherine beside it, now beautifully reframed in a 16th-century tabernacle frame (with segmental pediment and cornice).
Leonardo’s greatest impact, however, was spurring Raphael to experiment with Madonna and Child compositions. Like the elder artist, Raphael would rapidly sketch many ideas on a single sheet in pen and ink; none of these drawings are in the show, but one can be seen in the British Museum’s Raphael and his School display.
As one edges towards the Madonna of the Pinks and the Holy Family with a Pomegranate drawing (Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille), you can see Raphael slowly imbuing his figures with greater dynamism and emotional intimacy.
Finally, for me, the two best drawings in this 2nd exhibition room are the Siege of Perugia (Louvre) and the Annunciation (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm), betraying the influence of Leonardo and Michelangelo’s huge Battle cartoons for the Palazzo della Signoria (present-day Palazzo Vecchio) and Donatello’s Calvalcanti Annunciation in Santa Croce, Florence.
I think it’s fair to say Raphael practically perfected the genre of Madonna and Holy Family images, imbuing them with an elegance and grace unlike any other painter before or after him.
The Alba Madonna (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), in my opinion, is his best rendition of the subject, painted in the first few years of his permanent residence in Rome. As the Palais des Beaux-Arts drawing in Lille attests, it was holistically designed for the circular tondo format.
Unlike the balanced but static Madonna of the Palm (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh) from a couple years earlier in Florence, the Madonna’s angular composition – echoed also by the infant Christ – dynamically sways with the painting’s curved edges, creating further leading lines that accentuate the directional gazes of his figures.
My personal vendetta against this room is that the Lille drawing was not displayed double-sided, hiding a more finished study of the Madonna herself, arguably one of Raphael’s best drawings. The only other surviving study is in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, of the infant John the Baptist.
The tondo format was very fashionable in Florence for Madonna and Child images. In fact, Raphael was heavily inspired by Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo (Uffizi) and marble Taddei Tondo (Royal Academy of Arts, London); the latter’s influence is evident in the Bridgewater Madonna (National Galleries of Scotland).
As one moves from his Florentine Madonnas to those made in Rome, one will notice the Madonna’s garments shift from a traditional red-and-blue palette to the more vibrant pink and baby blues found in the Garvagh Madonna (National Gallery) and Alba Madonna.
This is one of my favourite features of Raphael’s early Roman Madonnas. Also exhibited is the sweet Tempi Madonna (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) which represents a transition point where the Madonna is dressed in pink and teal with a gold undershirt. The composition derives from a Madonna roundel in Donatello’s Miracle of the Newborn Child in the Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Padua.
When comparing the Tempi Madonna with the smaller sketches above the Lille drawing, you can see just how far Raphael improved in his experiments to create better intimacy and interaction between the Madonna and the infant Christ.
The Chigi Chapels
In Rome, one of Raphael’s most important patrons was Agostino Chigi, the richest man in Italy and principal banker for Popes Julius II and Leo X. He commissioned several projects from Raphael, notably the decorations of the Villa Farnesina and two family chapels in Santa Maria della Pace and Santa Maria del Popolo; neither chapels were completed in their lifetimes.
For Santa Maria della Pace, Raphael planned – for his first time – a multimedia ensemble, encompassing frescoes, two bronze roundels, and an altarpiece, all thematically linked to Christ’s Resurrection. The two frescoes depicting Sibyls and Prophets remain in situ above the chapel.
Both bronzes from the Abbazia di Chiaravalle and attributed to Cesarino Rossetti are on display alongside all of their surviving designs by Raphael (two each). However, they were never installed in the chapel, which would have occupied the wall spaces below the Sibyls, flanking the altarpiece.
The interesting thing about the drawings is how Raphael used variations in line pressure to mimic the contours of relief sculpture under directed light, especially the metalpoint (Städel Museum, Frankfurt) for the Incredulity of St Thomas. The Descent into Limbo is easily my favourite and the Palais des Beaux-Arts drawing of Christ alone reveals Raphael’s drawing process: outline in blind stylus, then fill the undraped areas in pen and ink, leaving space for drapery.
The Resurrection altarpiece was also never executed, but the surviving drawings reveal the extraordinary amount of variation given to the soldiers’ reactions to the risen Christ. A double-sided sheet (Ashmolean) features a flurry of rapid figure studies, many of which survive independently as highly finished black-chalk drawings; one is on display.
This section also includes two drawings related to the chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, which presently features a mosaic dome by Luigi de Pace designed by Raphael, where the red-chalk angel can also be spotted. Architecture fanatics will love his ground plan for the chapel (Uffizi) – a very rare survival – lightly gridded and annotated with measurements in Roman ‘palmo’ (22.35 cm).
The Vatican Stanze
Raphael came to Rome on an invitation to join a team of painters to decorate the Vatican Stanze for Pope Julius II, whose National Gallery portrait is shown with a 1:1 reproduction of the School of Athens, placed at ground level to better appreciate Raphael’s life-sized figures.
The exhibition’s challenge, however, is to condense four rooms’ worth of ceiling and wall frescoes along two-and-a-bit walls. As a result, many frescoes lack representation; the Stanza del Incendio di Borgo is omitted entirely. About half of the works relate to the Stanza della Segnatura, intended as the Pope’s personal library.
Of all the frescoes, the Disputa drawings are the most extensive. A pen-and-wash half-compositional study in an already very advanced state of development (Royal Collection, Windsor) shows Raphael’s first idea. The fresco’s right half features a figure leaning on a parapet, intensely studied in the Musée Fabre sheet (Montpellier), and includes his draft of a (not particularly good) sonnet.
Meanwhile, the other side of the room features a red-chalk drawing of the Doctrine of Two Swords (Royal Collection). The studies on this double-sided sheet were for two grisailles on the window embrasures of the Jurisprudence wall, normally hidden by window shutters during opening hours.
My favourite double-sided sheet of studies for two women in the Expulsion of Heliodorus (Ashmolean) is also here! Designed for the Stanza di Eliodoro, Raphael characteristically studied each figure fully and honed in on specific details around the periphery.
However, the true highlight is the Moses and the Burning Bush cartoon (Museo Real e Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples) from the room’s ceiling. Its imposing size – over 18 sheets glued together – is shocking since the painted version looks quite diminutive in person. It’s been my dream to see this cartoon in person (and in good lighting!).
Finally, the drawing of Pope Leo X in a sedia gestatoria using coloured chalks (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) is an exceptional example in Raphael’s graphic oeuvre. New scholarship suggests it was intended for the Repulse of Attila fresco in the Stanza di Eliodoro, a transitionary step from the original idea to use Julius II’s features on Pope Leo I (the Great), but whose death prompted a revision.