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Raphael: The Drawings – The Ashmolean’s once-in-a-lifetime exhibition

a sketch of a male and female head and a hand

Saint (c) Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The Ashmolean lines up a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to experience the visual and emotive power of Raphael’s hand

At the height of his career and fame in Rome, when he not only became papal architect but also overseer of archaeological excavations, Raphael still used drawing as a mode of reflection and exploration.

The drawings were renowned for their refinement and were highly prized in their day as autonomous works of art. Raphael was keenly aware of their worth and he sometimes offered them as gifts to prestigious figures such as the powerful Duke of Ferrera Alfonso d’Este (1476 – 1534).

To Albrecht Dürer he presented the powerful sheet, Three Standing Men (c. 1515) and the German artist annotated the drawing, recording that Raphael sent it to him ‘to show him his hand’, a phrase that echoes Dürer’s concept of the ‘free hand’, the locus of talent, skill and creativity.

The Ashmolean’s own precious collection of Raphael drawings is the largest and most important group of Raphael drawings in the world. It arrived at the Museum in 1845 following a public appeal to acquire them from the estate of portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) who had amassed an unrivalled collection of Old Master drawings.

a sketch of two standing male nudes

Male Nudes. Copyright Albertina Museum, Vienna

a sketch of the head of a young female

Head of a Museum. Photographed by Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART

Raphael: The Drawings mines this important collection to reveal 120 sublime works of art including 25 pieces on loan from the Albertina Museum, Vienna and works from international collections inlcuding The Head of a Muse (private collection), which broke the records when auctioned at Christies in 2009.

Drawn from right across a brief but brilliant career the drawings will take visitors from his early career in Umbria when as Giovanni Santi, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino he was apprenticed in his father’s workshop, through his radically creative years in Florence to the period when alongside Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci he was at the height of his powers in Rome, working on major projects such as the Vatican frescoes.

The intention is to transform our understanding of Raphael through a focus on the immediacy and expressiveness of his drawing and the exhibition reveals how the artist investigated and refined his ideas through the process and materials of drawing in ways that were more subtle or more adventurous than they would appear in his paintings.

Dr Catherine Whistler, Keeper of Western Art, Ashmolean Museum, and exhibition curator, says the exhibition, “aims to shift the ground in our appreciation of Raphael by looking at his drawings as worlds in themselves, where we see the artist’s hand and mind in tune as thoughts take shape before our eyes through the process and materials of drawing.

“The idea of eloquence runs through the exhibition,” she adds, “not only in the shaping of Raphael’s powerful visual language but also in the tactile and gestural qualities of the drawings and in their expressive power – aspects that also make the drawings ‘speak’ in arresting ways to viewers today.”

a sketch of a young and older bearded male head

Two Apostles. Copyright Ashmolean Museum University of Oxford

a sketch of a young man wearing a late medieval hat

Youth. Copyright Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

A nuanced portrayal of a youthful saint (c. 1505–7) evokes not only a sculptural form, but an enigmatic, brooding character while the red chalk folds that encircle and cling to the Madonna in the Studies for the Madonna of Francis I (c. 1518) were expressive details that would not translate to the final painting.

Highly aware of the expressive potential of each drawing medium, including charcoal, earthy chalks, ink and metalpoint, Raphael’s drawings reveal processes of thinking, experimenting, recalling from memory, and revising, with gestures both rapid and considered, which attest to an embodied intelligence shaped by the nature of the medium.

Raphael died aged just 37 on April 6 1520 after suffering for ten days with a high fever. His death was reported in a letter to the great patron of the arts, Isabella d’Este: ‘Here no one is talking of anything else other than the death of this good man […] who has finished his first life; but his second life, that is Fame, which is not subject to Time or Death, will be eternal […].’

Raphael: The Drawings is at the Ashmolean Museum from June 1 – September 3 2017. £12/£10 concessions. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue of the exhibition with essays by Achim Gnann, Ben Thomas, and Catherine Whistler. £25 available at the Museum or online at www.ashmolean.org/shop

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Ashmolean Museum

Oxford, Oxfordshire

Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is the country’s oldest public museum and home to one of the most important collections of art and archaeology to be found anywhere. The collections span the civilisations of east and west, charting the aspirations of humankind from the Neolithic era to the present day. Among its…