Andrew Lambirth

Sweetness and Light

People love to sniff the scandal of forgery. Didn’t that old rogue Tom Keating practically become a folk idol? The disputes of scholars are mostly dry stuff, but the notion that the National Gallery’s recently and expensively purchased ‘Madonna of the Pinks’ by Raphael could be a fake has been resurrected by arts reporters and newshounds hungry for headlines on the occasion of this eagerly awaited Raphael exhibition. I have heard artists and critics voicing their doubts about the authenticity of this painting — one of the former opining that the faces do not look sufficiently Italian to be by Raphael, but are instead ‘neurotic and unmistakably Low Countries’ — and indeed it is easy to have misgivings about such a controversial picture. But where is the best place to judge its correct attribution? In the presence of other paintings by the Master, of course. The National Gallery could hardly have provided a better showcase.

There has been talk of Raphael (1483–1520), or Raffaello Santi as he was known, going out of fashion. Certainly he is still recognised as the youngest member of the great High Renaissance triumvirate composed of himself, Leonardo and Michelangelo, who revolutionised Western art, but he has suffered from the ‘chocolate box’ ordeal almost more than Boucher. His portraiture was sometimes marred by too much idealisation (particularly in the religious works), which led inexorably to sentimentality. The artist celebrated for his ability to make universal statements has thus been trivialised, his reputation compromised in these cynical dark days. There is perhaps too much of sweetness and light about Raphael for contemporary taste. Yet the prodigious talents of the man cannot be denied.

Formidably ambitious and correspondingly successful, he was a brilliant draughtsman and designer who worked hard and achieved much in his tragically short life. The facts of his early years are hard to arrive at, but his professional career seems to have begun in 1500, at around the time he made the famous self-portrait drawing, which is the first exhibit in the first room of this exhibition.

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