The iconic Raphael awes at the Albertina as an iconic painter and draftsman
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Raphael is among the most-praised artists in history. His style synthesized compositional balance with dynamic movement and dramatic characters, creating a template of what painting could do until the dawn of Impressionism. Combining Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomic explorations and Michelangelo’s realistic yet idealized figures, even centuries later, a mid-1800s English artist collective dubbed themselves the Pre-Raphaelites to oppose his influence.
Yet masterpieces aren’t created overnight; a new exhibition at the Albertina takes a closer look at the Renaissance master’s creative process and the techniques and materials he used, giving a unique opportunity to experience his multifaceted personality as a painter and a draftsman.
Raphael’s progress is shown with spontaneous impressions and virtuosic detail studies from the Albertina’s very own collection, supplemented by works from the Uffizi Gallery, the British Museum, the Louvre and the Vatican, rounded off with some beautiful and important drawings from the Ashmolean Museum.
Set in eight rooms, around 130 drawings and paintings follow his artistic trajectory, from his beginnings as an apprentice in Urbino through his Florence period until he finally established himself as a great painter in Rome. His brilliant sense of composition helped establish a doctrine of the image, translating religious dogma into powerful, timeless iconography.
Only 17 cm high, The Dream of Scipio (also called The Vision of a Knight) illustrates the eponymous character trapped between virtue and vice in a triangular composition. Later, Raphael would repeat this on a larger scale in his numerous depictions of the Madonna with children. Oil-on-wood portraits and self-portraits encapsulate the essence of Raphael’s art, gazing in melancholically as visitors stroll by.
Ahead of his time
The exhibition is worth seeing for the 18 oil paintings alone, but understanding Raphael’s creative process makes the show even more momentous. Seeing the unfinished sketches with the grid scales still penciled in is like getting a behind-the-scenes tour. A keen observer, Raphael examined each movement and every posture of his models.
The Massacre of the Innocents speaks volumes in body language: strong and heavy male figures are made with precise lines, the tiniest detail of their nearly naked forms defined. Sharp contrasts make the figures three dimensional, swept away in the movement. Raphael’s dynamic, figural style expressed the quintessentially human aspects of his figures: character, feelings, and the driving force behind their actions.
At the very end, a study in black chalk for Transfiguration awaits, an altarpiece that was to be his last painting. Raphael devoted special attention to the shaded areas, creating a lively contrast of light and dark. The apostles’ heads reflect their doubt and emotions, detailing each line of their hair, face and eyes.
Raphael’s untimely death at 37 came suddenly, and this piece was placed at the head of his coffin. As Giorgio Vasari, one of his greatest Renaissance contemporaries stated, “With such rich and varied gifts, Raphael is not a mortal, but a mortal god.”