What makes this exhibition so fabulous is the way the curators have included many of Raphael’s sublime finished works but have also included many of the drawings or preparatory sketches which were made before each piece. With some exhibitions you might leave with the idea that the artist only ever completed finished masterpieces. The truth is that a great deal of ‘eyeballing’, as Hockney calls it, goes into the sketching of models, the arrangement of set pieces, selection of props and studies of backgrounds before the first layer of ground or glaze is put in place. With this show at the National Gallery, you really get a feel for the working artist, the way he saw the world, his relationship with his subjects, his assistants and his patrons as well as the philosophy which underpinned much of the work.
It’s great to see reproductions of huge frescoes. This, above, is a very clever reproduction of the work called The School of Athens – we see Plato (pointing upwards) and Aristotle (pointing downwards) at the centre. The figure at the front, seated and sketching on a block is reputed to be a portrait of Michaelangelo. The two artists, though working in Rome at the same time, were not friends.
The preparatory drawings are rarely seen in exhibitions and it’s so enjoyable to peruse these sketches. Clearly Raphael had a very expert eye for the human form, male and female, and spent time working with life models to create poses which evoke emotion, movement, action. It’s like a peep behind the curtain of a very polished show and seeing all the ropes and pulleys which make illusions work.
We have some beautiful madonnas – especially two Tondo (round) paintings which capture the bond between mother and child and the tenderness of their relationship.
The portraits in the final room are a joy. On the left is a self-portrait of Raphael with his talented studio assistant, Giulio Romano. The central portrait is La Donna Velata (apparently a great love of the artist) and the rather more saucy Portrait of a Woman from 1519-20. What you take away from these portraits is the bond and the relationship between subject and painter. There’s a real feeling of engagement and affection.
What a shame that Raphael died so young but his legacy is huge and artists ever since have admired and tried to replicate his extraordinary style, his attention to detail and sheer technical brilliance. This is a fabulous show.