A matter of whim and fashion?

Martin Gayford on the rise and fall of artistic reputations

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.

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