Rafaello Sanzio da Urbino, better known as the painter Raphael, died on April 6, 1520. Some sources say he was born April 6, 1483, on his 37th birthday, which may be spurious. Legend has it that our friend Hasan Niyazi, an amateur art historian and blogger who had a special connection with Raphael, also died when he was 37 (though apparently he was actually 38). In tribute to Hasan, a number of us have decided to post something about Raphael on this day, which we prefer to celebrate as a birth, not a death.

Raphael, Disputà. A yes, no, or maybe type of argument.
Raphael, Disputà. A yes, no, or maybe type of argument.

Hasan and I disagreed on a number of things, which is one thing that made our conversations so enjoyable. And one of these was how great an artist Raphael is. Hasan’s life project was Open Raphael, a complete online and open source monograph of the artists’s paintings and drawings. In part to irk him, I told him I don’t really like Raphael. I can appreciate him as an artist, but I have always had trouble pinning down the beloved sprezzatura that made him such a big deal with his contemporaries. In light of this commemorative event, I’ve been talking with a number of people about Raphael, and more and more of them have come clean to me about not particularly liking the artist. Which leads me to ask: what do people nowadays like or dislike about Raphael? Is an eventual lukewarm contemporary reception due to a lack of appreciation, in our time, of some of the things that were much appreciated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?

I composed a survey with a simple question: “How do you feel about Raphael’s paintings.” I limited the survey to painting because I think this is the part of Raphael’s work that most people are most familiar with. I asked people to rate Raphael’s paintings on a scale of 1 to 10, and then to try to explain this rating in words. I also asked some general questions about age group and familiarity with art and art history as I was wondering if there was correlation between either generation or level of art historical study and liking Raphael – for example, do older viewers who have studied art history gain a better understanding of and thus appreciation for Raphael’s style, which might be harder to grasp upon first viewing?

Survey results

Raphael rated from 1 to 10
Raphael rated from 1 to 10

20 people responded to my informal survey, which I circulated on social media. In particular, the Google forms survey was shared in a group of people who met through Hasan, plus to my own Facebook and Twitter accounts, and was re-shared by other art historians on Twitter. The small, non-randomized sample of respondents does not make the results scientifically relevant, but the written comments help us figure out how people feel about Raphael these days.

On a scale from 1 (dislike) to 10 (love), Raphael has a high number of avid admirers (35%). Nobody admits to totally hating him., though one person gave him a 2 and another a 3. The middle ground accounts for most responses, which is better explained in the textual answers. The personal data collected about age and education does not seem to be relevant, though I provide the information here for anyone else to draw conclusions.


The following is a summary of some of the comments received, grouped by type.


To start, the comment by Ed Goldberg (who gives Raphael a 10) is useful to orient us, as he reminds us:

His artistic evolution was breathtakingly rapid – in only twenty years, he went from sugary Peruginismo to bold proto-mannerism. This was enough “development” to fill the careers of five or six merely excellent painters, so he eludes our grasp as a unique personality…

Ben Street, another huge fan of Raphael, breaks it down similarly.

Raphael is not an easy artist to appreciate, despite his reputation. Post-romantics as we all are, we tend to take the easy route by clinging to artists that come pre-packaged with a digestible biography that ‘explains’ the art – people like Michelangelo, Caravaggio or even Leonardo. (Of course, the biography doesn’t explain the art, but that’s the way art is discussed in the public imagination). Raphael doesn’t have that. So that’s his first problem for modern viewers. His second problem is that he’s too diverse, not easy to pigeonhole. His third is that he is a combiner of other people’s ideas. You’d assume that any culture that had passed through Marcel Duchamp, Picasso, Sherrie Levine, Grandmaster Flash and YouTube would have no problem with this. But people really do have a problem with Raphael, which I’ve encountered over and over again. But the greatness of Raphael has to do with the special intelligence of painting, which goes beyond biography, even beyond description.

Short life, varied style, and a fan of the mash-up – no wonder Hasan appreciated Raphael so much! Ben’s insights are very interesting; he goes on to suggest that Raphael has a lot of “pictorial intelligence,” a term coined by art historians Baxendall and Alpers about Tiepolo, but that Ben says should be applied to Raphael, whose brilliance is “all there in the paint”, which makes it harder to talk about compared to other helpful things like patronage, subject, etc. But beyond the paint, Raphael shows different characteristics when he changes medium. His drawings are an insight into the artistic mind and how this one exceptional artist developed compositions, using always more refined styles.

Study for Madonna and Child (British Museum). Raphael's preparatory drawings show the research side of the "perfect" artist.
Study for Madonna and Child (British Museum). Raphael’s preparatory drawings show the research side of the “perfect” artist.

Lynn Roberts (of The Frame Blog) gives Raphael a balanced 6 precisely because she appreciates some aspects of Raphael’s paintings but not others:

Many of Raphael’s religious paintings, especially of Madonnas, seem to me so idealized as to have lost something of their humanity […] On the other hand, some of his portraits are outstandingly good, and the composition of his frescoes also raises the bar for me; that’s why I’m around the mid-point of liking/loathing.

Laurel Watson’s reflections are similarly balanced between the different media in which the artist worked, as she says she finds it “hard to react with much emotion to the seemingly endless Madonna paintings. The beauty of them sometimes feels bland…. but viewing the Stanza della Segnatura frescoes in the Vatican inspire awe. I feel I could look forever at the vibrant colours and detailed characters.”

Too Idealized?

(L) Small Cowper Madonna, (R) Madonna of the Goldfinch
(L) Small Cowper Madonna, (R) Madonna of the Goldfinch

The idealized Madonnas seem to be the thing people dislike the most about Raphael. Jacqueline Gufford, an art history student, reflects:

I find his work lacks any compelling spirit. For example, his Madonnas are beautiful and “ideal” but in an unnatural way – the viewer can feel how calculated the choices are. As a result, the emotive response the works are likely intended to ellicit are lost.

For Jake, it’s not just the Madonnas but all of Raphael’s figures: “The people in Raphael’s paintings seem lifeless to me. They have dead eyes and can barely muster emotion… ” Interestingly, although some say that Raphael figures lack contagious emotion, Rosemary begs to differ: “I love his painting they make me feel warm inside. I am no expert. But I know what I like, and its the way he makes me feel.” Unreasoned emotional response is important now as it was in the past.

Sedef, who blogs at Sedef’s Corner, ranks Raphael a 4, explaining that “Although I find it hard to dispute Raphael’s talent, on a personal level his work does not speak to me, at all. His figures and compositions too perfect, they never captured my imagination to further investigate what lay beyond.” Her comment is interesting to me because she, like I, recognizes that we need to recognize skill in an artist like this, but that skill is not always enough to generate a personal reaction.

Raphael reception, past and present

When I was working on my dissertation, which focused on late 15th- and early 16th-century prints, Raphael cropped up frequently, since his paintings were the sources for thousands of printed compositions in the half century after his death (for more on this, see Pon in the bibliography below). In part, this vast diffusion of Raphael’s style and composition was due to an intelligent business arrangement with a kind of “official” printmaker, Marcantonio Raimondi, who seems to have had access to Rapahel’s drawings while he was working on major frescoes, thus diffusing motifs even before they were completed. The massive body of work “after Raphael” (often via Marcantonio) is testimony to the appreciation for Raphael in this period, one that only increased with circulation.

(L) Print, personal collection. (R) detail of Raphael, Fire in the Borgo
(L) Print, personal collection. (R) detail of Raphael, Fire in the Borgo

As an example of how both primary written sources and visual evidence point to a major appreciation of Raphael in the past, we can look at how certain motifs were picked out by both contemporary critics and printmakers, such as the graceful water-bearer from the late Raphael fresco in the Vatican, the Fire in the Borgo. The 17th century writer Giovanni Pietro Bellori said that he “could not imagine a more beautiful conception than this figure created in the grand style (maniera).” (Reilly) A late 17th-century print that I own shows this same figure, beautifully rendered in reverse and isolated from the rest of the composition. The print has a plumb line drawn on it by a contemporary student who used it to study drawing. Raphael was, after all, the academic painter par excellence, used for centuries as the example from which to learn.

In an article by Janis Bell, I found that I am not the only person who enjoys ranking Raphael by number. Roger de Piles, a French man writing in 1708, ranked Raphael in comparison to 57 other artists. He received a high passing grade, except in the field of “colouring” where he got only 12 out of 20. His commentary on the matter was that Raphael did not use eye-catching colouring, so the viewer “had to make a conscious effort to study the works instead of being drawn to them instantaneously by their sensuous appeal.” (Bell) Curiously, some of our survey respondents mentioned above say pretty much the same thing! Part of the problem, Piles says, was that Raphael did not use chiaroscuro (contrast between light and dark), something on which he and his contemporaries clearly placed importance. Piles’ opinion was reflected by later critics, who emphasized Raphael’s strength in disegno rather than colorito.

Raphael's Transfiguration is an exception to his lack of use of Chiaroscuro.
Raphael’s Transfiguration is an exception to his lack of use of Chiaroscuro.

Bell demonstrates that those closer in time to Raphael did not disparage the artist’s use of colour in the way that later critics did – making me wonder if they were already seeing some of the paintings encrusted with dirt that affected their natural colour, whereas we see them restored. Rapahel’s contemporaries saw the original colour, and liked it. For example, Paolo Giovio, in 1530, says that Raphael avoided using too harsh colours by always mixing them in favour of unity. This avoidance of harsh contrast may be overly subtle for us today. Colour is also part of the “trick” to creating softness and unity, as Bell explains based on passages from Vasari. This results in the idealized “sweetness,” inherited from Perugino, that many of us dislike in Raphael’s Madonnas.

A much longer survey of the reception of Raphael would be in order to make sufficient conclusions (and there’s a book on this). What this brief survey shows is that reception is never stable across centuries. Some of the things we appreciate about Rapahel nowadays are the same as those cited positively by his near-contemporaries, while some of our issues with the artist reflect those noted already by 17th-century critics. Raphael is an artist who has been garnering “likes” or “dislikes” for over five centuries.

Knowledge breeds understanding?

So, what do I think of Raphael? Well, like Rosemary, I know what I like – and what I don’t like – though I can’t always express why. I have never much liked Raphael’s art, despite having studied him (not extensively). I do appreciate him as a businessman, as a workshop leader and an “influencer” of his day. I appreciate the complexity of his frescoes and the human hand (and mind) that is so visible in his drawings. I really don’t like his paintings, especially not the Madonnas. Maybe I could learn to love Raphael if I took the time.

Survey respondent Maaike says that “Hasan opened my eyes to this artist.” Ben Harvey, a professor of art history, also credits Hasan for his recent appreciation of Raphael:

I think I feel a lot more positive about Raphael than I used to, and I’ll attribute the reasons for that change to Hasan. Hasan made me look harder at the Raphaels I came across – perhaps out of a sense of obligation – and forced me to engage actively with his work.

Another Ben, Ben Street (a lecturer in art history), wrote a long encomium to Raphael in my survey and his conclusion is apt: “All [Raphael] needs is time and an open mind, and a willingness to stop interpreting and start experiencing.”

This might be said of all art, and of life.



Bibliography (works cited)

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