Issue Number: 117
An exceptionally rare Raphael drawing from Chatsworth is to be sold for the first time in centuries. Michael Craig-Martin RA explains its pivotal importance
Raphael, Auxiliary cartoon for 'Head of a Young Apostle', c.1519-20. © Sotheby’s. Vatican museums and galleries, vatican city/de agostini picture library/the bridgeman art library. The great edifice of Renaissance art was erected on a foundation of drawing. It is perhaps unsurprising that no period in history has left us with a richer or more complex and varied heritage of drawings: sketches, studies, cartoons, fully realized masterworks. There was no greater Renaissance draughtsman than Raphael: he was the one they all admired most.
Raphael’s black charcoal drawing, Head of a Young Apostle (c.1519-20), which goes under the hammer in December at Sotheby’s in London (est. £10-15 million), is a study for his last great painting The Transfiguration (c.1519-20), now in the Vatican Museum.
When Raphael made this drawing for the apostle, who appears on the far left of the painting, he had already laid out the overall structure of this immense work in cartoons. (These are full-size drawings that are transferred by pouncing, or making pinholes in the sheet through which basic outline information can be traced in charcoal onto the canvas.) ‘What is radical about this work is that it is an auxiliary cartoon which Raphael has used to explore in actual size every nuance of this figure,’ says Gregory Rubinstein, Sotheby’s Head of Old Master drawings. Raphael wanted to make a further study drawing to work out precisely the positioning, pose, structure and modelling of this head before starting to paint. So he took the original cartoon and pounced the head onto a fresh sheet. We can still see the charcoal marks transferred from the cartoon’s pinholes, and also how fundamentally he departed from it.
Raphael, 'The Transfiguration', c.1519-20, showing the apostle on the far left for which the auxiliary cartoon was made. © sotheby’s. Vatican museums and galleries, vatican city/de agostini picture library/the bridgeman art library The drawing is notable for its lightness of touch, its delicacy, its assuredness and its economy. Although it is not large (375mm x 278mm), the sense of scale gives it the presence one normally associates with painting. The point of view from which Raphael has drawn the young man’s head is unusual and critical: from behind and slightly above the figure, who turns towards us, the muscle in his neck slightly taut, but his gaze downwards, away from us. Though the movement of the head is slight and the youth’s face is calm, absorbed and tender, the drawing itself is charged with energy and emotion. Raphael draws the hair as a cascade of curls, using it, like the wispiness of his beard, to show the youth and vitality of the figure. We feel we can see into the heart of this young man, but we do so without the benefit of seeing his eyes.
The face is beautifully modelled. Raphael draws the left half in light so bright it seems to bleach away all but the strongest details. The light catches in turn the forehead, eyelid, cheekbone, nose, and moustache with full force, etching them with sharply defined shadows. By contrast the other half of the face is deep in shadow, subtly described in greys, and silhouetted against the light of the background. It is this complex play of light and shadow that gives the head its striking sculptural presence. There is even the shadow of a curl on the youth’s forehead, clearly emphasizing the volume of the space between the two.
Though this drawing was made as a study, it is clearly a masterwork of the highest order, a singular example of the Renaissance aspiration to align the physical beauty of the human form with aesthetic perfection in art. The beauty of the youth is not just depicted but embodied in the exceptional beauty of the drawing.