Raphael's Drawings

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, December 19, 1987 | Go to article overview

Raphael's Drawings


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


Raphael's Drawings

There is enough of an internal connection between artistic expression and the historical period in which it flourishes that, we are all ready to agree, not everything is possible at every time. It would, for example, be difficult to imagine Michelangelo doing what we venerate him for in the time of Giotto, or Leonardo painting the Last Supper--or the Mona Lisa--when Masaccio executed the Expulsion From Paradise. Nor is it easy to imagine Michelangelo or Leonardo painting as they did a century later, after the epic of Renaissance art had climaxed and come to a close with their stupendous performances. In a sense, to make their work possible, each of them required just the sequence of transformations in the way artists represented the world that had in fact taken place. The same must be true in some degree of the third member of the triad in whom the Renaissance impulse achieved fulfillment. Yet it is not quite as difficult to imagine Raphael in much earlier stages of the Renaissance. And it is easy to imagine him painting as Raphael a century or more after his death--for the simple historical fact is that academic art for the next three centuries was more or less defined in Raphaelesque terms. He died in 1520. In 1550 Vasari's Lives of the Artists first appeared, in which, in effect, the end of the history of art was declared. It was not, as Browning wrote, that "Suddenly, as rare things will, it vanished,' but that the problems of the Renaissance agenda were basically solved: there was no place to go beyond Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael. The Age of the Academy was at hand, and indeed the Accademia del Disegno was founded in 1563. This period might just as well have been called the Age of Raphael, and it lasted well into the nineteenth century. Indeed, it was through Raphael's adaptations of their work that Leonardo and Michelangelo survived as part of the curriculum.

It is hardly matter for wonder, then, that those English artists who found confirmation of their views in Ruskin's Modern Painters should have designated themselves explicitly Pre-Raphaelite. Difficult as it is to read such a work as Sir John Millais's Christ in the Carpenter's Shop as a blow struck for Modernism, it was plain to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood that art would have to return to some historical node anterior to Raphael and trace another path altogether, if relief was to be found from the tyranny of his forms. Their positive theories were less Modernist than their repudiations. Modernism was given its impetus less by their obsession with visual truth--with transcribing the world as it presents itself, "rejecting nothing, selecting nothing'--than with their negation of academic artifice. Ruskin characterized them this way:

They intend to return to early days in this one point only--that, insofar as in them lies, they will draw either what they see, or what they suppose might have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent, irrespective of any conventional rules of picture-making; and they have chosen their unfortunate though not inaccurate name because all artists did this before Raphael's time, and after Raphael's time did not this, but sought to paint fair pictures rather than represent stern facts.

Between Raphael and ourselves there is, accordingly, the whole history of Modernism, which dismantled the conventions and examples of his acknowledged excellence, making him, of the three titanic figures of the High Renaissance, quite the least available to us. The grinding familiarity of the Raphaelesque idiom blinds us to his originality, while Modernism itself desensitizes us to the inducements of the academic maniera he invented. And it is perhaps this very historical circumstance that heightens the availability to us of Leonardo and Michelangelo. What we respond to in them are the extravagances that survive the sweet adaptations of Raphael--extravagances that may have looked coarse or uncouth to academicized vision but which, to Modernists like ourselves, embody the very meaning of artistic power and pictorial genius. …

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