Raphael at the National Gallery

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Raphael at the National Gallery


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


THE National Gallery is celebrating its costly purchase of a dubious Raphael by holding an exhibition, under the title of Raphael: from Urbino to Rome, mostly of his undisputed pictures. It is indeed, as the gallery and some press commentators claim, a major exhibition, but far from monumental. There are forty-seven drawings and thirty-three paintings (six from the gallery's permanent collection) by or at least attributed to Raphael. In addition there are seventeen pictures by masters with some connection to Raphael, as well as, curiously, a cast of Michelangelo's marble tondo at the Royal Academy.

One of Vasari's engaging qualities was to extol nearly everyone and everything he wrote of. He praises Heaven for 'the no less excellent than gracious Raphael', who added to his natural sweetness and gentleness the adornment of courtesy and amiability (Lives of the Painters, 1568). His paintings testify to Vasari's words. Michelangelo was vehement even in painting Eve and the Madonna. Raphael was smooth even in painting St Michael and the Dragon and The Entombment. Much later and unexpectedly his fellow-painter Delacroix lauded Raphael for characteristics which were the reverse of his own: 'his marvellous sobriety; his constant measure: no extravagance, no vulgarity, no triviality'. Raphael's subtle draughtsmanship, which may justify the preponderance of drawings at the National Gallery's exhibition, made him Ingres's hero.

Raphael's brilliance shines but does not warm. Often his paintings remind one of Tennyson's description of the face of his heroine, Maud: 'faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null'. Although no incandescent genius himself, Sir Joshua Reynolds suggests, in his Discourses on Art, that Raphael's fire lay dormant until he caught a spark from Michelangelo, which lit 'a pure, regular and chaste flame'. He adds that 'our admiration for Raphael is judicious rather than extreme: he never takes such a firm hold and entire possession as to make us desire nothing else, and to feel nothing wanting'. If Raphael ever felt self-doubt, he would have shared the regret which Browning's Andrea del Sarto expresses for a 'low-pulsed, forthright craftsman's hand'.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with prudence and dexterity. In Raphael's looser drawings one sees him finding his way, mostly by reducing detail, to perfection of design rather than merely exact anatomical study. That is why Ingres revered him. Raphael, himself aware of the appeal of his ancillary works, kept Marcantonio Raimondi by him in his Studio to engrave, with painstaking accuracy and under Raphael's close direction, the drawings he had no time to transform into paintings. Some of the engravings, such as The Judgement of Paris and The Massacre of the Innocents are among Raphael's most fascinating master-pieces. The dominance of colours in the completed paintings at times almost conceals the exquisite aplomb of the preliminary drawings. Perhaps for that reason, he often chose subdued colours and applied them cautiously, as in The Choice of Hercules (National Gallery), like someone working in tempera on plaster rather than oils on canvas. Ingres, who considered drawing the foundation of painting, and colour a mere adornment, heartily scorned those who said that Raphael did not exploit colour as Rubens and van Dyck did: 'Parbleu, I should think not! He would take care not to do such a thing'. In spite of that, the paintings by Ingres based on the life and works of Raphael (such as two Madonnas and the versions of Raphael and La Fornarina) are more enticingly coloured than anything by Raphael himself. Raphael softened colour; Ingres blazed with it.

The reason for Raphael's wariness, as well as for his ambition, was sombre. There was no way forward for him except by pleasing people. His father Giovanni Santi, whose wife had predeceased him, died in 1494, when Raphael was eleven years old. Although Raphael came from a prosperous family and augmented his fortune by his business-like conduct, no wealth could compensate for the loss of the 'good and loving father', as Vasari calls Giovanni Santi, who had already planned the future of his only son. …

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