Rhetoric and realism in ‘Raphael: The Drawings’

Anoushka Kavanagh is impressed by the Renaissance master’s gift for story-telling and imaginative flare in the Ashmolean’s new exhibition

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Study for the Three Graces, c. 1517-18, (c) The Royal Collection Trust, HM Queen Elizabeth II

Everything in this exhibition has so much to offer, you would be here for several days if I were to go through everything” laughed Dr Catherine Whistler apologetically as we neared the end of our whirlwind tour of the Ashmolean’s new exhibition. I think she’s right, for each of the 120 sketches in Raphael: The Drawings—which opened yesterday—presents us with something new.

The display showcases a phenomenally diverse range of styles, medium, and subject. Every individual drawing—be it a vibrant nude in red chalk, animated male figures in vintage brown ink, or a monochrome self-portrait in layered charcoal—is a treasure trove of artistic capability and (unexpected) wild imagination in its own right.

Raphael forms part of the Holy Trinity of Renaissance masters, alongside Michelangelo and Leonardo. Though whilst Michelangelo was held to be the great ‘creative genius’ of the era—lacking in formal restraint and pushing the limits of artistic boundaries—Raphael has long been believed to have been the ideal ‘balanced’ painter, who obeyed all the rules then supposed to govern the arts. His classical perfection and geometric purity appealed to the contemporary Renaissance Humanist audience for whom mannerism was simply too excessive, whilst his anatomical accuracy, perfect decorum, and rigid discipline meant he dominated the curriculum of the European Academies throughout the 18th century.

Yet The Drawings—which includes unedited frenzied brainstorms and thumbnail doodles— presents a different side of the master, leaving us with the lasting impression that Raphael was not simply a phenomenally talented artist, but also a highly gifted story-teller, with an exceptional imagination and immense flair for experimental expression. The Ashmolean’s curation convinces us Raphael was far more inventive than his famous frescoes let on.

Raphael’s figures are beautifully emotive, yet rhetoric often appears to take precedence over realism in many of them. As the curatorial team’s description of their ‘renaissance yoga’ antics let on, often, the portrayed positions are simply humanly unattainable. The limits of figural narration are pushed, as such, in ‘Study for a soldier in a Resurrection’ (c. 1511-14). The male figure, sketched in black chalk, cowers under the force of resurrection with arms raised protectively to shield his face. But his legs and torso don’t quite connect in this painfully contorted pose—as if they have been formed from two wholly separate studies. Raphael’s sketch may not be realistic, but it expressively captures the force of the moment. It narrates a story and showcases his talent for persuasion.

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This underlying theme of persuasion pervades many works on display this summer—we can’t help but feel the artist wanted to affect us with his art. The overpowering, vermillion chalk marks in ‘Study for God the Father with Cherubs’ (c. 1515-16) exude a sense of awe. The Father figure, shrouded in this vibrant red mist, is deeply stirring—his hands raised in gesticulation and mouth hanging open, as if we can almost hear the booming voice projecting out. We find ourselves looking up at the character due to Raphael’s skilful use of angle, further adding to the might the piece manifests.

‘Study for Massacre of the Innocents’ (c. 1509-10) is similarly emotive. Frenzied ink marks portray a hollow, harrowing face as a lone woman desperately clutches her baby, hurtling towards us through the crowds engaged in violent slaughter. Much of this study’s narrative capacity finds itself in space and direction though. The crowds part, leaving a clear central channel through which our attention is focused.

Raphael’s gift for oration similarly manifests itself in masterful manipulation of space, rhythm, and direction throughout the exhibition. In the remarkable range of studies for Vatican frescoes presented—especially those for the stanza della segnatura—Raphael transforms abstract themes like theology and philosophy into compelling visual stories.

Gesticulating figures carve out indicative spaces: ‘Study for the lower left part of the Disputa’ (c. 1508-10) is marked with a diagonally upwards surge, heads and shoulders within the crowd amassed on the steps angled upwards towards a focal point, out of the frame. In a study for the upper part of this project, light is instead used astoundingly convincingly to orchestrate heavenly space. Two tiers of figures—occupying the heavenly zone of the fresco—are bathed in luminous white chalk, as if divinely illuminated.

No doubt Raphael was influenced by the Humanist education’s emphasis on oration, as it trickled down the ranks, using drawing instead of words to ‘marshal his visual arguments’ as such—but that does not go the whole way in explaining his inventiveness.

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Within the series of sketches here, we are indulged with Raphael’s scribbles, doodles, and brainstorms, conjuring up the image of a hugely experimental young man. ‘Studies for figures in the Disputa with drafts of a sonnet’ holds poetic abstractions amongst the sketches of conversing papal figures. Vigorous revisions and cancellations highlight his efforts to forge fresh ideas, concurrently evidence of another artistic outlet and a testament to his creativity.

A rare insight into Raphael’s imagination also presents itself in ‘Sheet with inventive ideas’ (c. 1511-14). A flurry of figural activity gathers in the bottom right-hand-corner, before forms disperse upwards to heaven, like human wisps of smoke. Here is a frenzied brainstorm in which we witness the master’s rush to pencil his ideas down.

Evidently, Raphael was every bit as much the creative genius as Michelangelo, his drawings capturing imagination and projecting the inventiveness that is lost in his painting. Here, what the Ashmolean calls his ‘process of thinking, experimenting, recalling from memory, and revising’ comes alive. At the same time, exceptional skill pervades the collection—though that is almost a given. His human forms and cloth folds are tangibly realistic, his use of light in white chalk truly awe-inspiring. A deep understanding of humanity is harboured in his recurrent theme of mother and child, and sensuous depictions of the female form in drawings like ‘The Three Graces’.

Every drawing is so intriguingly different, though you’ll only truly understand if you visit The Drawings yourself. For every mark here provides a new, invaluable insight into the artist’s mind, a flurry of imagination far removed from the rigid formality so often associated with Raphael.