A matter of whim and fashion?

Martin Gayford on the rise and fall of artistic reputations

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Raphael, affirmed Sir Joshua Reynolds, ‘stands in general foremost of the first painters’. In other words, he was the best artist who ever lived. When Reynolds wrote this — in the second half of the 18th century — Raphael’s reputation had remained on that peak for centuries. He was the ideal, the model for students to imitate.

He certainly isn’t that any more. The forthcoming exhibition of early Raphael at the National Gallery may cause his popular stock to rise again, but surely not to that extent. Raphael is a prime example of an artist whose renown has slumped; he isn’t unknown but nor is he ever likely to be again the acme of everything that a painter should be. His story illustrates the fact that, like London houses, unit trusts and other marketable commodities, artistic reputations can go down as well as up.

A few years ago, I did a weekly series of interviews with living artists, each of whom chose a work from the past to talk about. It lasted for over a year, and numerous Old Masters and notable modernists were chosen. Some — including Piero, Picasso, Titian and Matisse — were selected so often that I had to introduce a rationing system. But in all that time, no one even mentioned poor Raphael. But how different it would have been had I been able to question Reynolds.

‘The excellency of that extraordinary man,’ Reynolds wrote of Raphael, ‘lay in the propriety, beauty and majesty of his characters [Sir Joshua meant the ones he painted], the judicious contrivance of his Composition, his correctness of Drawing, purity of Taste, and skilful accommodation of other men’s conceptions to his own purpose.’ This praise neatly explains exactly why people don’t like Raphael’s work so much any more.

‘Purity’, ‘correctness’, ‘judicious contrivance’ all add up in the modern mind to ‘boring’, while the last bit about ‘skilful accommodation of other men’s conceptions’ suggests ‘derivative’ as well. Of course, it isn’t fair. Raphael hasn’t changed; he is still the great artist he was in 1520. Nor have his works — though by all accounts his masterpiece, the frescoes of the Vatican Stanze, has been subjected to absolutely brutal cleaning (without anyone making very much fuss). It is the rest of us who have changed.

Well, not that much, you might respond. After all, last year the National Gallery purchased a small picture by him for an extremely high price. True, but without a great deal of public enthusiasm. Indeed, the whole affair was accompanied by a great deal of grumbling.

Personally, I was supportive of the campaign to buy the ‘Madonna of the Pinks’, in part because I thought the arguments advanced against it — that Raphael was a foreigner and hence of no interest to the British, that it would be better to give the money to the NHS than waste it on art, and so on — were weak. But, after the deal had been struck, I happened to hear that the NG had also briefly considered acquiring a rare Goya still-life at the same time (but obviously could not afford both).

Immediately, I realised how much I would rather have had the Goya to look at in our national collection than the Raphael. And dark, sardonic, idiosyncratic Goya, a hint of death and violence in most things he touched, is exactly the kind of artist who appeals to a modern sensibility. He looks forward to Manet, Picasso, Damien Hirst.

Raphael’s fall has been a limited one — from top artist to just another Renaissance master. But art stocks can plunge further than that. In his fine book The Studios of Paris John Milner describes the fate of Ernest Meissonier, ‘the most honoured and successful artist of the late 19th century’. ‘Today,’ Milner points out, ‘he is a figure of greater obscurity. In a hundred years his reputation has largely vanished, despite all the splendour of his worldly success. In the histories of art he is rarely mentioned. There evidently lies a gulf between contemporary reputations and posthumous recognition.’

Quite so. The same has happened to many of the giants of 19th-century art; while struggling pygmies such as Cézanne and Van Gogh have supplanted their positions. It could well happen, though not necessarily, to Damien and Tracey. A couple of years ago I interviewed the director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York — the institution whose superb collection of 20th-century art used to tell the triumphant story of Modernism. These days, he mused, he felt that all 20th-century reputations were provisional — even Picasso’s.

Could Pablo tumble from his pedestal, just as Raffaello Santi did? Odder things have happened. After all, the history of art is as much one of revolutionary change as of continuity. Some objects — mediaeval and tribal art, for example — suddenly zoom up in general estimation having been dismissed as ‘primitive’ or barbarous. Others sink, a fate that overtook the classical statues in the Vatican that, for 18th-century visitors, were the main reason for visiting Italy.

Individual artists have experienced similar fluctuations in fame post mortem. Vermeer — now close to occupying Raphael’s old position as perfect painter — was almost completely forgotten for a century and a half after his death. Rembrandt, though never so neglected, did not become a god of art until the 19th century. El Greco was rediscovered in the age of Post-Impressionism, 400 years after his death. Caravaggio’s work was long regarded as the depth of bad taste.

On the other hand, country houses and picture galleries are crammed with works once more sought after than they are now. Michelangelo is one of the very few artists whose value has always been sky-high (even Reynolds was enough of a romantic privately to prefer him to Raphael).

Are there any objective standards, then, in art? Or is it all, as the relativists insist, a matter of whim and fashion? Well, it is true that what we like keeps shifting all the time. What troubles a modern eye about Raphael is precisely what made him such an idol to the classical age: his work is so perfect, so polished, so harmonious — all the qualities that don’t excite us.

Nonetheless, the quality of his work exists: the superb drawing, the purity and perfection. It’s just very hard to prove such things. I remember once going round the art gallery in Bologna with the late critic David Sylvester. It is filled with pictures by Bolognese artists such as Guido Reni and the Carracci, all influenced by Raphael, and all much less fashionable than they were 200 years ago. Finally, we came to a wonderful picture of St Cecilia by Raphael himself. ‘You know,’ said Sylvester, ‘it would be impossible to explain, to anyone who didn’t already agree, exactly why this is by far the best picture in the collection.’ But perhaps when the exhibition opens at the National Gallery (20 October), we’ll all see why that is.