An original who learned from others

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Copying and learning from other artists was a hallmark of Raphael's art. Unlike Leonardo and Michelangelo, the other two stars of the so-called "High Renaissance" in early 16th-century Italy, Raphael did not become a venerable master with a long career.

He was born in Urbino in 1483 and died in Rome in 1520. As an exhibition at the National Gallery, London, shows, his development from a provincial court painter into a major artist was a matter of about 13 years and was what is known today as a "learning curve."

It is clear that to the young Raphael there was no shame in copying and learning. Quite the contrary. And for centuries, his own art was tellingly to become the model for teaching academic art. Rapael's drawings and paintings do not disguise his debt to others, from his father (via Perugino) to Leonardo and Michelangelo.

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Instead, his works evince a highly intelligent ambition and eagerness not to rest on any laurels.

It would seem that he went to Florence deliberately to witness the latest art there, including Michelangelo's recently unveiled statue of "David."

The nature of "originality" or "individuality" is not always obvious, and a startling difference from other artists is not the only measure.

In 19th-century France, for example, Degas was unquestionably "an original." Yet he absorbed into his work the examples of earlier masters, particularly those of the Italian Renaissance. This absorption, however, never led to dependence or mere emulation.

Raphael's capacity to make his influences his own and to bring to them his consummate clarity and finish distinguishes his vision. (Neither Leonardo nor Michelangelo always achieved finish.)

"Saint Catherine of Alexandria," which pictures this martyr at a point of tranquil ecstasy, is a synthesis of Umbrian precision and air, Michelangelesque sculptural heroism (with its own roots in classical statuary), and Leonardesque female grace.

But in the end, only Raphael could have produced this transcendent painting.

The current National Gallery, London, exhibition of Raphael, which includes this painting, is centered around the gallery's outstanding collection, with fine loans added.

"Saint Catherine" belongs to the gallery.

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