Perfection on paper: Raphael at Oxford’s Ashmolean

Published 2 June 2017

Rather than being supplementary to his paintings, were Raphael’s drawings works of genius in their own right? RA Magazine’s Sam Phillips argues the Ashmolean Museum’s once-in-a-lifetime show offers a rare chance to reassess this aspect of his work.

  • From the Summer 2017 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    One pair of hands is outstretched towards you, foreshortened so fully that you could reach out and hold them; the other is turned in, fingers retreating between chest and palms. The former belongs to an old man, composed in three-quarter view: wisps of hair frame a benign face with eyes wise from life’s experiences. The more youthful man’s eyes are in shadow – it is the full lips, and sublime shading across his profile, that delivers a strong sense of delicacy.

    Raphael demonstrates his real range with this work, which is a highlight of a show dedicated to the Renaissance master’s drawings at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. He was an artist who could do everything, and here, on parchment 50cm long, variety of composition is matched by variety of mark-making, with black chalk used variously to create vigorous outline, fluent free swirls and careful accumulations of shade. It is the same combination of daring design and technical dexterity that found climactic form in Raphael’s extraordinarily inventive religious scenes, including his renowned frescos and tapestries for the Vatican.

  • Raphael, The heads and hands of two apostles

    Raphael, The heads and hands of two apostles, c.1519–20.

    Black chalk with over pounced underdrawing with some white heightening. 49.9 x 36.4 cm. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

  • This expressive drawing is a study for his last work, The Transfiguration of Christ (c.1517–20). Intended as an altarpiece, the painting stood at Raphael’s deathbed and is now considered his late masterpiece (“among the vast number that he painted, [it] is the most glorious, the most lovely, and the most divine”, claimed Giorgio Vasari). Stand in front of that huge, dynamic, almost symphonic panel painting today and you can see the same two men from the drawing. They are apostles, surrounded by others who are attempting to free a young boy of demonic possession; the transfigured Christ floats above, in the painting’s upper register. But while the two men are composed with clarity and naturalism in the painting, their expressions lack poetry – they have nothing of the feeling that exudes from the chalk drawing.

    This poses questions that lie at the heart of the Ashmolean exhibition. Should we contemplate this Raphael study as separate from the painting, a work “in itself”, rather than a means to an end? Past scholarship on Raphael has tended to focus on ends, with his drawings discussed solely in terms of their function for a painting project, such as their role in the development of a design. The show’s curators Catherine Whistler and Ben Thomas, in contrast, write in the exhibition catalogue about their ambition to understand the “character and inherent values” of these drawings “as singular graphic works”. They have faith in “the tactile and gestural qualities of the drawings and in their expressive power – aspects that also make them ‘speak’ in arresting ways to viewers today”. Will we find that Raphael, in other drawings, was more expressive on paper than he was with paint? And if Raphael is more unfashionable in Britain today than Michelangelo and Leonardo, the Renaissance masters with whom he is always compared, can the directness of his drawings gain him favour with a contemporary public?

  • Raphael’s reputation in this country has been closely connected to the Royal Academy. From soon after his death, his work was extolled in academies in Italy and then across Europe, his technical mastery appearing an apotheosis to which every artist should aspire. At the RA, President Joshua Reynolds mused that artists’ minds might “catch fire from the divine spark of Raphael’s genius”, so emblematic was the “excellence of his style”. From the turn of the 19th century the Academy’s collection included James Thornhill’s copies of the cartoons for Raphael’s Vatican tapestries, which, in turn, were copied by students in the RA Schools, the lessons handed down to yet another generation. In the words of writer Neal Ascherson, “as 19th-century ideas of ‘European civilisation’ imagined art as an evolutionary process which would culminate in perfection, Raphael seemed to embody perfection”. The royal portraitist Thomas Lawrence RA amassed an unrivalled collection of Raphael drawings before his death in 1830; these, together with his Michelangelo drawings, were then acquired by the Ashmolean, forming a cornerstone of its collection.

    But in the late 1840s, RA students including William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti rejected the Academy’s veneration of Raphael, defining themselves in opposition to the Italian master by forming the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Their critic in chief John Ruskin put into words their animosity towards Raphael’s “grand style”. He remarked on Raphael’s Vatican frescoes: “from that spot, and from that hour, the intellect and the art of Italy date their degradation… henceforward execution was looked for rather than thought, and beauty rather than veracity”. Raphael’s mastery was perceived as too perfect, masking his lack of engagement with the truth of nature and the human condition. Such perceptions became widespread as modern artists across Europe turned further away from academic traditions at the end of the 19th century.

    The exhibition brings together the Ashmolean’s Raphael holdings with loans from collections including the Uffizi in Florence and the Albertina in Vienna, in a comprehensive overview of his drawings. Whether Raphael is somehow more soulful – even more modern – than we thought will be an open question for visitors. What is beyond doubt is that with drawing, as with painting, he does reach perfection. Red chalk is smoothed so subtly that the drapery of a woman’s dress has the weight and substance of real fabric; iron gall ink is swooped in such looping lines that a cavalcade of horses comes to life on the page. While his contemporaries had abandoned metalpoint for chalk, a new medium that could be erased, Raphael continued to use lead and silver styluses to exquisite effect, unafraid to make a mistake. Such demonstrations of skill may only raise Raphael up further. In Vasari’s words, “it may be surely said that those who are the possessors of such rare and numerous gifts as were seen in Raffaello da Urbino, are not merely men, but, if it be not a sin to say it, mortal gods.”

    Sam Phillips is Editor of RA Magazine.

    Raphael: The Drawings is at the Ashmolean, Oxford, until 3 September.

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