Sunday, 6 April 2014

A day with Raphael in Chantilly

Picture: MS
Over the past couple of years I've been trying to see all of the drawings of Raphael. So far I've seen around half of the 450 or so attributed sheets, and my most recent foray was to the Musée Condé in Chantilly, which has three paintings by Raphael and up to nine drawings depending on which you accept as autograph. 
The Musée Condé is housed in a fairy-tale chateau just outside Paris. It's largely a nineteenth century reconstruction, famous as the villain's home in the Bond movie A View to a Kill (sadly one of the weaker Bond movies). It's the collection of the Duc d'Aumale, son of Louis-Philippe and leader of the Orléans faction. He was in exile in Twickenham for many years, and he assembled an astonishing art collection with great works by Poussin, Ingres, Watteau and Sassetta as well as the Raphaels. The museum was extremely helpful and accommodating of my request to view the drawings, and I arrived an hour before official opening for my appointment in the library.

The library is outstanding, including the greatest of all French manuscripts, the Tres Riches Heurs du Duc de Berry illuminated by the Limbourg brothers. The library also houses the fabulous collection of old master drawings, including particularly strong collections of Poussin and Raphael. I was there to see the drawings by Raphael and his school. Under the terms of bequest nothing can be loaned from Chantilly, so these drawings are not as well known as more widely exhibited Raphaels. There was an exhibition at Chantilly in 1983 for the 500th anniversary of Raphael's birth, complementing the great Raphael drawing exhibitions in Paris and London. And there is an excellent catalogue of the drawings by Benjamin Peronnet, but it's available only in French, and rarely available at all. I've only seen it for sale at the Chantilly shop (where it costs nearly as much as a Raphael drawing). I deliberately avoided reading up on the Chantilly Raphaels before my trip so that my impressions could be as fresh as possible, but I found Peronnet's catalogue insightful and illuminating when I struggled through the French text on my return to London.
Picture: MS from Chantilly catalogue
Seeing these famous drawings 'in the flesh' is a quite different experience from seeing them illustrated in a book, no matter how good the reproductions. A good example is the early drawing above, which looks a bit scrappy in reproduction. It's actually huge; it took two people to bring it into the print room for me see. It's irregular, but Joannides gives dimensions for the whole of 52.5 x 125.0 cm. It's a cartoon, presumably for a decorative fresco in a private house in Urbino. Nothing of that sort survives, so it's a rare glimpse of an entire aspect of Raphael's early work that is otherwise lost to us. We know art history from the works that survive; we have little knowledge of ephemeral interior decoration.

The other thing you don't get from reproductions is an appreciation of drawings as three-dimensional objects. Raphael didn't just draw in charcoal, chalk, ink and metalpoint. He also used a stylus, which scratched indentations into the paper to indicate contours. This early drawing shows particularly lively and extensive stylus indentations in parts. He seems to have used the stylus to define certain forms, and then used chalk and charcoal once he'd established the broad composition. The putto at the far right and the boar at the left have particularly extensive stylus work, the other putti and boars less so. He really went crazy with the stylus on that left hog; because stylus lines are not coloured, it's a forgiving technique that can be used to try out different designs. 
Picture: Culture Whisper
The boars derive from an early Dürer print The Return of the Prodigal Son (detail above). Both the Dürer and the Raphael are extremely charming images, and the fresco must have been spectacular. 
Chantilly Study (OpenRaphael) Tags:
Picture: Open Raphael
This drawing is related to the Belle Jardinière in the Louvre. It's a fine drawing, but I don't think it's a Raphael. Peronnet summarises its critical history; it was doubted for most of the nineteenth century, but has more recently been favourably received. Peronnet catalogues it as 'Raphael or Timoteo Viti', and I'd go for the latter, although I might be misled by its over-cleaned condition. I suspect the degree of damage and restoration in drawings is less widely understood than in paintings. One Raphael drawing in Chantilly is a wreck - the Madonna of Humility. But another, the Study for the Disputa (below) is beautifully preserved, especially compared to a related study in the Ashmolean. Some highlights are slightly oxidised, but the contrasts from varied dark washes to disciplined white highlights are superb - especially contrasted with other studies in similar technique that have suffered greatly from abrasion and exposure to light.
Picture: Musée Condé
Then there are the fascinating, wonderful and problematic red chalk drawings. A group of these masterpieces is debated between Raphael and his studio, especially Giulio Romano, who produced his best drawings in Raphael's studio and then abandoned the medium in favour of ink, but also the enigmatic Giovanni Francesco Penni, who was Raphael's business manager, running his large and prolific studio in Rome. Two drawings are catalogued by Peronnet as by Raphael or his studio, which is a fudge but an honest acknowledgement of the uncertainty around these drawings. 
JPEG - 30.2 ko
Picture: La Tribune de l'Art
Porter Carrying a Table, a study for the Vatican fresco Fire in the Borgo, is dazzlingly beautiful, but on closer inspection has faults that are inconsistent with Raphael's finest drawings. Paul Joannides is especially critical:  "the contours are stiff and inexpressive, registering nothing of the physical tension of the action. The legs are heavily hatched, but three-dimensional relief is not created, and in the chest, especially, modelling is entirely lost except for an attempt made at articulation by laying a few light lines over the surface of the hatching - a literally superficial method, which mocks Raphael's deep structures. This draughtsman is more successful with features like the feet, then hands and the hair, but they seem like still-life details within a whole which is not organic" (Paul Joannides The Drawings of Raphael with a complete catalogue Berkeley: University of California Press 1983 p. 104). Peronnet notes that the anatomical accuracy, treatment of light and lively hair speak for Raphael's authorship. It may be a copy of a lost drawing. As Peronnet notes, even if the studio was substantially responsible for the fresco, and even if students were involved in the planning and design, it's hard to accept that Raphael would have delegated the preparation of such a key figure. Again condition is an issue; subsequent application of wash has dulled details. 

My immediate response was sceptical. "Not Raphael!" I wrote, but I also noted that it didn't quite look like Giulio. The shading struck me as too even and too ponderous, the limbs defined by line rather than volume. But the quality is very high, and the articulation of details like the knee is effective and very like Raphael. It could well be a copy of a lost drawing, but the thesis that it is a Raphael diminished by damage is certainly plausible. My view is that it is not by Raphael, and I am cautious of attributing it to Giovanni Francesco Penni. Penni is an enigmatic figure to whom scholars attribute drawings that differ wildly in quality. He is something of a wastepaper basket for drawings that don't quite fit.
Picture: Musée Condé
The other problematic drawing is this study for the Three Hours in the Villa Farnesina loggia, which Peronnet gives to Raphael or his studio, and Joannides rejects, admiring the depiction of folds and hatching on the stomach of the central figure, but regarding the rhythms as lumpy and the expressions dull. He gives it to Penni, or perhaps Giulio. Perronet acknowledges that it is inferior to the incomparably wonderful Three Graces at Windsor, but notes that the compromised condition affects our judgment. 

The Three Hours is a less immediately stunning image than the Porter Carrying a Table, but I thought it had a better claim to be by Raphael. When I saw it I noted that it was rather worn, but excellent - with varied shading and a better sense of volume. I'm inclined to attribute this sheet to Raphael. 

I'm fascinated by the red chalk drawings produced by Raphael and his studio in Rome. The best of them rank among the greatest works of art ever produced, but even some of the drawings generally assigned to his studio rise to astonishing artistic heights, including Guilio Romano's best graphic work. I've seen enough of this group of drawings to form a reasonable sense of their relative quality, and to have arrived at my own views as to which might be by Raphael himself. I tend towards parsimony, but I might be mistaken. Perhaps I am seeking too much consistency and I am being too harsh in my judgment of works that are almost-but-not-quite masterpieces. Despite intense study by many of the best scholars of old master drawings, there will never be consensus because people have different views of Raphael's character and consistency. 

After the Raphaels, I looked at the fine selection of works by his pupils and followers in the Musée Condé. Giulio Romano is well represented, with a beautiful drawing of a saint, perhaps Saint Blaise, and a large highly finished drawing of The Banquet of Scipio. It's an impressive work, but it pleased me less than the charming Saint Blaise. The other stand-out drawing for me was the Façade of a Palace by Perino del Vaga, a large drawing showing part of a planned exterior fresco cycle. Nothing like it has survived five centuries of exposure to the elements. I quite lost track of time, and had less than an hour to see the pictures. Fortunately I'd been to Chantilly fairly recently and spent a full day in the chateau, but I'm ready to return again! I really recommend it. It's an easy day trip from Paris (train from the Gard du Nord), and the collection is stunning. If you go, do take a torch - it's very badly lit. And when you get to the sign that sends you in opposite directions for the chateau and the museum (which is, er, in the chateau...), take the right turn. 

My visit to Chantilly was last December, but today is an auspicious day to write about it because it is Raphael's birthday. I don't usually go for birthday tributes, but this is a special birthday because it has been chosen as a day to commemorate Hasan Niyazi, a prolific and influential art history blogger and Raphael fan who died at a tragically age. You can see commemorative posts from other bloggers here.


  1. I chuckled at your description of Giovanni Francesco Penni as a wastepaper basket when it comes to attributions. I don't feel like I really understand him as an artist, but now I think it's because too many things have been attributed to him!

    Thanks for this post. I know that Hasan would often get inspired to visit places based on what other people discussed online, and I feel the same way. I've never been to Chantilly, but now I really would like to go there (especially if nothing can ever go out on loan!).

    1. Thank you - yes, I'd like to write more on Penny. I don't think I understand him either. But I don't think anyone else does, either! And I do hope you can get to Chantilly. It's quite wonderful.

  2. I think I re-read your post at least 6 times by now. Your description of the drawings is really helpful in imagining the nuances and the tangible quality of the pieces. A really super read.

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