Displaying over 90 works by Italian Renaissance artist Raphael, the curators have undilutedly mapped his mastery as painter, draughtsman and archaeologist, to show why he still plays such a crucial role in the history of Western art.
Raphael (1483-1520), Saint John the Baptist Preaching, 1505, oil on poplar, 26.2 x 52 cm/10.31 x 20.47 in.
© The National Gallery, London
“Raphael” is one of the first exhibitions outside of Italy to present the comprehensive story of Raffaello Santi’s (1483-1520) artistic career. Originally planned for Spring 2020, the exhibition was intended to mark the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death in parallel with the Scuderie del Quirinale’s exhibition in Rome. Although two years delayed it is an exhibition that was definitely worth waiting for. David Ekserdjian, co-curator, encapsulated, “some people think of Raphael as being an effortlessly smooth swan gliding across the water of art”, but his drawings “show that swan frantically paddling below the surface of the water”, to produce the harmony, grace, and beauty for which he is so revered. The juxtaposition of his paintings with his drawings captures both sides of Raphael’s “swan” adroitly.
Raphael’s paintings and drawings are laid out following the chronology of his life: starting with his early mastery, punctuated with deliberate areas of focus including his celebrated Madonnas, several patronages, his interdisciplinary passions, and ending with the “visual fireworks” of his portraiture. Three self-portraits interspersed throughout the show keep Raphael’s presence at the forefront of our imagination, from his early 1498 drawing, which already reveals the sprezzatura of his form, to the handsome self-portrait of c.1506 from the Uffizi collection, Florence, and the late painting, where he stands behind his student Giulio Romano, (1519-20) from Musée du Louvre, Paris. While keeping to the chronological progression of the exhibition, the highlighted areas show Raphael as a Renaissance man.
With so many beautiful works on view, the National Gallery gathered an impressive selection of loans alongside nine works from its collection, in particular The Alba Madonna (c. 1509-11) from The National Gallery of Art in Washington, which enabled the curators to create an unprecedented pairing with The Garvagh Madonna (1510-11) and a preliminary drawing for Alba from Lille, a juxtaposition, which even Raphael was unlikely to have seen in his own lifetime. Exhibited for the first time is an exciting newly attributed drawing of The Holy Family (1512-13), which was unearthed at Drouot in Paris in April 2019. While Raphael’s frescoes were arguably his greatest contribution to world art, they clearly could not be shown in this show, instead viewers are transported to the “School of Athens”, from the Vatican Stanze, through a full-scale replica print. From this thorough rendition of Raphael’s oeuvre, the curators felt there were only a few ingredients missing, alongside the understandably withdrawn Hermitage loans, they were unable to secure Pope Leo X’s portrait from the Uffizi collection or La Belle Jardinière (1507-08) from the Louvre. Nonetheless, these omissions are not sensed at all in this fantastically crafted story of Raphael’s brilliance. This critical exhibition of Raphael’s career testifies to why Giorgio Vasari’s “Universal Artist” continues to inspire audiences today.