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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 Copyright Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

‘Raphael: The Drawings’ at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford

16 June 2017 | Laura Garmeson

Raphael is the definitive Italian Renaissance artist. Born Raffaello Sanzio in fifteenth-century Urbino, Italy, he emerged as a child prodigy and was declared a ‘master’ of art by the age of seventeen. Best known for his painted Madonnas and Vatican frescoes, he also happens to be one of the finest draughtsmen in the history of Western art. In a major new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Raphael’s virtuosic drawings trace the evolution of his incomparable technique, and reveal the true scope of his aesthetic ambitions.

In the words of John Berger, drawing is discovery. Free from the viscous commitment of paint, a drawing is full of layered corrections, stops and starts; it is a chance for the artist to explore a subject unhindered. For Raphael, drawings were always a means of developing and honing ideas. Variations on composition, form, light and motif are all mapped out as part of an endless creative process, producing sketches and studies which, when assembled, can give us an invaluable glimpse into the mind of the artist.
 

Image Credit: Study for the Three Graces, c. 1517–18, Red chalk over some blind stylus, 20.3 x 25.8 cm © The Royal Collection Trust, HM Queen Elizabeth II 

Raphael: The Drawings is a frankly remarkable body of work, displayed in a series of low-lit galleries in the Ashmolean in Oxford, which deliberately spotlights the drawings as artworks in their own right, as opposed to stylistic stepping stones toward a painting or fresco. Working with the materials of his day – red and black chalk, charcoal, pen and ink, metalpoint and washes applied with a brush – what distinguished Raphael was his constant technical inventiveness. Deeply influenced by his contemporaries Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, he nonetheless frequently surpassed their vision, defying conventions of the time so as to develop and pursue his own artistic ideals.
 
The gallery opens with the only self-portrait in the exhibition: ‘Portrait of a Youth’ sketched out in black chalk. The young man gazing languidly out from the picture is allegedly the artist aged seventeen, his face framed with long hair and a hat. The germ of Raphael’s distinctive style is already present – the careful cross-hatching, the economy of line – and it is a rare image of how the young artist might have seen himself. But the portrait seems tentative and reserved; in fact it tells us little about him. As the exhibition progresses, a far more nuanced and insightful portrait of the artist emerges.


Image Credit: Portrait of a youth (self-portrait?), c. 1500–1, Black chalk on white heightening (now largely lost), 38 x 26.1 cm © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford 
 
In the course of his short life, Raphael worked prolifically, as the scale of this exhibition implies. The drawings expose recurrent themes and obsessions: Raphael’s keen sense for drama and conflict, particularly in the muscular male form; the aesthetic importance of contrast in his work; his enduring preoccupation with the depiction of mother and child. Raphael’s own mother died when he was young, and his obsession with producing permutations of the Virgin and Child may well be linked to this early loss.


Image Credit: Studies for the Madonna of Francis I, c. 1518, Red chalk over blind stylus, 33.6 x 21.4 cm © Gallerie degli U zi, Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe, Florence 
 
After becoming a ‘master’, Raphael moved from Urbino to Florence, where he spent four intensely formative years. There he worked from models and from memory, giving him the freedom to experiment with different ideas while accruing a structural knowledge of the anatomy of the body. In a series of studies inspired by Michelangelo’s David, he uses his careful observations of the human form to adjust the posture of the figure and thus its character, implying these studies were drawn from memory rather than on-site before the sculpture. The intricate networks of muscle provide crucial contouring, allowing light to glance off the body to create a striking posture and form.


Image Credit: 
Study inspired by Michelangelo’s David, c. 1504–5, Pen and brown ink over traces of black chalk, 39.6 x 21.9 cm © Trustees of the British Museum 
 
It was when he moved to Rome in 1508 that Raphael’s work and ambition expanded significantly in scope. Commissioned to decorate a series of apartments for the Pope at the Vatican, he began to explore the rhetorical powers of sequence, pattern, and drapery to communicate his artistic vision, using flow of fabric to convey mood and character and composition to produce empathy in his sketches for ‘Massacre of the Innocents’. In studies such as his drawing of ‘Putto holding the Medici Ring’ he showed how a slight shift of weight onto one leg could twist a figure into a more dynamic and expressive pose. Rome also renewed Raphael’s interest in contrasts – light and dark, young and old, hard and soft – which feature prominently in many of his drawings.
 

Image Credit: Allegorical Figure of Poetry, c. 1510, Black chalk over blind stylus, squared for transfer in black chalk, with compass marks, 35.9 x 22.7 cm © The Royal Collection Trust, HM Queen Elizabeth II 

Raphael remained in Rome until his death at the age of thirty-seven, struck down at the height of his artistic powers. His funeral mass was celebrated at the Vatican, and he was buried in the Pantheon in Rome. Five hundred years on, his drawings, once a process of discovery for the artist, are now a means for a twenty-first-century audience to discover Raphael. Exquisitely observed and masterfully executed, these are works of a genius in the truest sense.
 
Raphael: The Drawings is on display at the Ashmolean in Oxford until 3 September.

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