Raphael review – the peerless artist in the round

National Gallery, London
Tranquil saints and sultry beauties populate an unmissable exhibition of the elusive Renaissance master’s work

Raphael, at the National Gallery, is a revelation. It could hardly be otherwise, in a sense, since this is the first exhibition outside Italy ever to encompass every aspect of his stupendous career. It runs through paint, chalk and print, wool, bronze and ink, and from the earliest drawing of himself at 15, with doe eyes and a half-formed nose, to the last startling self-portrait where Raphael paints himself with a fellow artist who points to the mirror as if looking to the future, at themselves and also us: one of the greatest double acts in the history of art.

Raphael Self Portrait with Giulio Romano, 1519–20.
Raphael Self Portrait with Giulio Romano, 1519–20. Photograph: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)

That picture has come from the Louvre, and it is a testimony to the extraordinary pulling power of the gallery and its exemplary curators that they have been able to bring together 89 works from all over the world. Here are his apprentice works and the final masterpieces made just before his death at 37; here are his visions of tranquil saints and tense philosophers, sultry beauties and soaring apostles, his friends, his colleagues, his amused and flirtatious lover. In room after room, singing with Raphael’s radiant red-blue-green palette, you are able to walk through his art and life as never before.

Which is vital, for Raphael has sometimes seemed the most elusive of old masters. The shape of his life is familiar enough from the ecstatic hagiography of his first biographer, Vasari. Born in Urbino in 1483, orphaned at 11, the prodigy is a master painter at 17. He leaves his hilltop birthplace for Perugia, where he learns from Perugino, then Florence, where he picks up Leonardo’s smoky technique. In Rome, by now intensely successful, he works for two popes and their Vatican bankers and is allowed surreptitious sightings of Michelangelo’s progress in the Sistine Chapel, from which he also learns.

There follow cartoons for the Sistine tapestries, drawings for bestselling prints, designs for St Peter’s Basilica – you can see them all here – and the running of an enormous workshop. Raphael was also working on the so-called Vatican Stanze, those immense murals alas bypassed by most visitors in favour of Michelangelo, when he died in 1520.

Vasari tells us that Raphael was fatally weakened by too much lovemaking. He was apparently amorous. The smiling woman in La Fornarina, said to be his mistress, holds one bare breast while pointing at an armband bearing his name, as if she belonged to him. The connotations are hard to take, at least to modern eyes, and yet her sidelong eyes hold a smile as if she too is in on a joke.

Portrait of a Woman (‘La Fornarina’), c1519–20.
Portrait of a Woman (‘La Fornarina’), c1519–20. Photograph: © Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antica

It was Good Friday when Raphael died. According to Vasari, his death was like a second passion. The saint of painting was everywhere mourned for the perfection of his art; a perfection, especially of draughtsmanship and harmonious design, that represented the evolutionary pinnacle to which artists would aspire for the next three centuries.

But it is this very emphasis on perfection – purity, balance, grace, the immaculate line, the sweetness of what Browning called the “dear Madonnas”, the artist of angels who drew like an angel, and so forth – all of it blocks the view. What is so exhilarating about this show is that it offers a chance to see past the old academic praise and to look at Raphael whole.

There are, to be sure, paintings that appear almost bafflingly serene. Saint Catherine of Alexandria poses in exquisite torsion, everything rippling upwards, from her soft drapes to her knees, thighs and sashaying hips, right up to the gracefully upturning face. Leaning on a wheel, emblem of the horrific torture she endured, she could be modelling martyrdom as the latest look. The concept is either absurd or it is ideal, if you prefer your martyrs flawless and untroubled, rising above it all.

Saint George smites the dragon with supreme ease, showing off his long-line armour all the way from upraised wrist to elegant, gleaming toe. Saint Michael lands lightly upon the monstrous body of Lucifer in a balletic jeté. Suppressing evil appears remarkably stylish and simple.

Raphael’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c 1507.
Raphael’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c1507. Photograph: © The National Gallery, London

But then look at a late drawing of an apostle, made for the great Transfiguration Raphael was painting at his death. A single head, in black chalk, the line appearing and then mysteriously disappearing to describe light on the dark curls, on the heavy eyelid, on the lowest tendril of the beard as the apostle looks down in silent despair. He does not yet know what we see above: that Jesus Christ is risen.

Arriving from Urbino, where it was made, is a rarely seen portrait known as La Muta. It shows a young woman in courtly dress, hair finely plaited, all the usual Renaissance jewellery. She has a very slight cast in her brown eyes, but more than that an appearance of watchful remoteness. One of her fingers is tensely flexed on the bottom edge of the painting, and she sits in encroaching blackness. It is no stretch to imagine that this profound portrait shows a woman who cannot speak or cannot hear, or perhaps both.

Raphael drew from living models. There are tremendous sequences of male nudes straining back a bow to shoot an arrow in battle, except that there is no bow. An exquisite red chalk sketch of a child with its arms upraised, as if about to lift off, will be transformed into an angel. God himself looks an athlete at the end of a race, arms triumphantly outflung.

And the more you look at Raphael’s drawings, so peerless, so lithe in their descriptive power, so quick with the maker’s touch, the more you see how the sight of life affects his paintings. For every idealised Madonna, there is a real mother touching, holding, guiding, cradling, protecting a real infant. Is there a more beautifully instinctive painting of a mother holding her baby than The Tempi Madonna from Munich? He is three or four months old, growing plump and upright, and just edging towards an independence she carefully supports with one hand below his bottom and the other round his back. It is affecting to think that Raphael, an orphan with no children, saw and depicted this intimacy with such closeness.

Bindo Altoviti, c1516–18 by Raphael.
‘Raphael transfixed’: Bindo Altoviti, c1516–18. Photograph: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

And that tenderness is there in his portraits of men as well as women. Raphael’s friend Bindo Altoviti turns dramatically towards us with his liquid blue eyes and long blond hair. Look at the downy sideburns descending almost to his jaw and you are seeing Raphael, transfixed, seduce you too with his brush until you could reach forward and stroke that cheek. Was there ever a portrait more tactile, irresistibly calling on the sense of touch?

If the sight of life deepens his art, so does personal insight. A high point of this show is Raphael’s startling painting of his great friend Baldassare Castiglione, diplomat, humanist and celebrated author of The Book of the Courtier. The face is all open intelligence and sensitivity; the demeanour a perfect expression of “sprezzatura”, that effortless grace recommended in Castiglione’s book. But the portrait has an immediacy quite unlike anything in Raphael’s idealised art. Titian, Rembrandt and Ingres all based portraits on the originality of Raphael’s half-turned, conversational composition. But most unique is the notch in the black hat, with its extraordinary zigzag sharpness: open like a speaking mouth.

  • Raphael is at the National Gallery, London, until 31 July


Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Monet and Architecture review – a world built of light and memory
From windmills cartwheeling across a Dutch sky to Venice dissolving at dusk, architecture for Monet was ever-changing nature by other means

Laura Cumming

08, Apr, 2018 @6:59 AM

Article image
Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck – review
The private art collections of great painters reveal an enthralling continuity of vision going back centuries

Laura Cumming

26, Jun, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light review – sunny side up
There is no doubting Sorolla’s love of light and the way it plays on all kinds of surfaces. But does anything lie beneath?

Laura Cumming

17, Mar, 2019 @7:59 AM

Article image
Bellotto: The Königstein Views Reunited review – he captures the castle
The soldiers, courting couples and drunks who populate five huge views of a fortress in Saxony by Canaletto’s nephew steal this fascinating show

Laura Cumming

01, Aug, 2021 @8:30 AM

Article image
Saint Francis of Assisi review – a saint for all seasons
Cheerful, selfless Saint Francis is forcefully present in this enthralling show of art and imagery from the Renaissance to the present inspired by the muse, mystic and social radical

Laura Cumming

07, May, 2023 @12:00 PM

Article image
Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne review – revolution pure and simple
Samuel Courtauld’s lifelong collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces spark off each other in an enthralling collaboration

Laura Cumming

16, Sep, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Picasso Ingres: Face to Face review – portraiture at its most radical
This first-time pairing of Picasso’s Woman With a Book and its inspiration, Ingres’s celebrated Madame Moitessier, underlines the uniqueness of each artist

Laura Cumming

05, Jun, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Raphael review – the Renaissance master who made saints and virgins glow
This glorious show suggests that the painter’s adoring Madonnas are more than just geometric wonders – they contain memories of his own lost mother

Jonathan Jones

05, Apr, 2022 @11:00 PM

Article image
Artist Kehinde Wiley: ‘The new work is about what it feels like to be young, Black and alive in the 21st century’
The US painter is famous for reimagining the western portrait tradition with Black protagonists. Now he aims to refresh the Romantic landscape canon

Kadish Morris

21, Nov, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Michael Landy: Saints Alive – review

Michael Landy's amazing kinetic sculptures at the National are the perfect riposte to those that would doubt him, writes Laura Cumming

Laura Cumming

25, May, 2013 @11:02 PM