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Raphael drawings give an inward view of the work that went into his paintings

By Christoper Andreae / November 30, 1983


The British have long been Raphael admirers. About a third of his known drawings are in English collections. So to celebrate the 500th anniversary of this transcendent draftsman's birth, what could be more appropriate than an exhibition bringing together for the first time all but two or three of these drawings?

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The British Museum is host to ''Drawings by Raphael'' through Jan. 15. It is a wonderful exhibition, illustrating the impetus and variety of a supreme artist's development.

It would be hard to think of a more persuasive means than this show to change the minds of Raphael's doubters. It could convince them that the youngest of the three stars of the Italian high Renaissance not only had a genius for harmonious clarity and classic balance - and was a consummate assimilator and reconciler of styles - but was also a free, vigorously inventive spirit, ''always imitating, and always original,'' as 18th-century portrait painter and critic Sir Joshua Reynolds put it.

Raphael's drawings, much more than his paintings, show the passionately intuitive way in which he instilled a motif with new life, and this in spite of his almost totally utilitarian use of drawing as a means to an end. An example would be ''Virgin and Child.''

Drawings in this exhibition provide firsthand evidence of his encounter with work of Leonardo and Michelangelo in Florence. He arrived there from Umbria in 1504 at the time Michelangelo's ''David'' was erected in the Piazza della Signoria, and three drawings here attest to his absorption, and transformation, of the qualities of that statue. Another drawing, the only female nude of these formative years, is a copy (from the royal collection) of a Leonardo drawing of ''Leda and the Swan.''

He carried all his influences - including the antiquities he much admired when he was later called to Rome - on his own more than capable shoulders. But he made them subserve the direction and purpose of his own rapidly enlarging vision.

Of course, not all the drawings included are of equal interest (except perhaps to specialists). There are those made as composition studies, for instance, for the large paintings commissioned by Popes to decorate rooms in the Vatican. But every single one, nevertheless, adds something to the overall picture of his inspiration and working methods.

Few artists have been as deliberate or exhaustive. He was consistently thorough and methodical, aiming for lucidity and balance - and the concentration on essentials for which his finished works have been valued ever since.

Certainly part of the enjoyment of any fine painter's drawings is what they reveal of his thought processes. Raphael's thoroughness makes his particularly interesting in this respect. They also give a feeling of closeness to his ''autograph,'' the undisguised working of his hand. In his paintings such personal qualities tend to be smoothed away.

But some of his drawings do have the sort of completeness that makes them seem ''finished.'' There are many fine examples in this show.