Raphael at the National Gallery Review


Over the past half-century, Raphael’s art has rather fallen out of fashion, Alastair Sooke told The Daily Telegraph. Latter-day critics “carp” that his work is simply “too perfect”; its unfailing “grace and harmony” is at odds with the dominant modernist tradition. Yet, as this “moving” exhibition at the National Gallery shows, the time has come to reassess this “supernaturally productive” example of the Italian Renaissance.

The show explores Raphael’s entire career, from his early days as an orphan in the city of Urbino until his death at the age of 37 in 1520 – from too much sex, according to Vasari. . Bringing together 89 masterpieces from collections around the world, it showcases Raphaël’s talents as an “engraver, architect, archaeologist and draftsman”, but above all, as a painter of unrivaled skill. This is an exciting exhibition of “chic, grown-up, sophisticated art” that is “authoritative” everywhere. Even the most reluctant critics will have no doubt: it’s a “superlative” event, and Raphaël was “very, very good”.

Raphaël was a prodigy, recognized Nancy Durrant in the London Evening Standard. A “completed” sketch, made when he was only 15 and considered a self-portrait, shows why he was considered a master well before his 20s. He ends up in Rome, where he becomes the favorite of two successive popes, arousing admiration and jealousy – notably of Michelangelo – in equal measure. You can see why: “the onslaught of beauty” here is “almost too much to bear.”

What is obvious is that Raphaël “really, very much appreciated women”: many representations of the Virgin and Child (a specialty), bear witness to his “unique ability to capture the affective relationship” between the mother and the child. On the whole less virtuous, his “beautifully suggestive” The Fornarine, a bare-breasted portrait believed to represent her lover, suggests “that the hands of the man who painted it had already been wherever the brush went”. “There’s only one disappointment” in this long-awaited hit show, “and it’s not the fault of the curators.” For obvious reasons, its architecture is difficult to portray, although you can see a “beautifully done and evocative video” about it in a “cramped side room”.

Sometimes Raphael’s paintings can seem a bit “absurd”, Laura Cumming told The Observer. His vision of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, for example, sees her unfazed and “bewilderingly serene” as she leans against a wheel, a symbol of “the horrible torture she endured”. But this marvelous collection of masterpieces lets you see his full range, not just the flawless Raphael of myth.

A portrait of his friend Bindo Altoviti sees him turning over his shoulder to meet our gaze, his “fluffy paws descending almost to his jaw”; It’s hard to imagine a “more tactile, irresistibly appealing to touch” portrait. Another strong point is the likeness of his friend the courtier and diplomat Baldassare Castiglione, a work of dazzling “immediacy” that radiates the “intelligence and sensitivity” of its subject. Perhaps most surprising of all is Raphael’s final self-portrait, in which the bearded painter stands next to another artist who gestures toward an invisible mirror, “as if gazing into the future, towards himself and also towards us”. This “exhilarating” spectacle is a “revelation”.

National Gallery, London WC2 (nationalgallery.org.uk). Until July 31


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