Tender Views of Mother and Child
THREE Italian artists dominate what has come to be called the High Renaissance: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. And one of the more extraordinary path-crossings of these equally remarkable but temperamentally different artists took place in Florence when, in the autumn of 1504, the youngest of the three, Raphael, arrived in the city where the other two were established and at work.
Raphael had come to Florence after his relatively provincial apprenticeship and early years as an artist in Umbria. The reason he had come, it is recorded, was to "study." He presumably felt that he had developed the balanced and lucid style he had learned from his master, Perugino, about as far as it could go. Florence would offer him greater challenges.
The rapid development of Raphael's art, its new dynamism and movement, its new forms and subject matter during the four years he spent in Florence, are traceable in his paintings, but more particularly in his drawings. They show openly enough what art he focused on in the city: the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo, above all. (Michelangelo was to leave Florence for Rome in March 1505; Leonardo in 1506. Raphael was called by the pope to Rome in 1508.)
The surviving Florentine drawings of Raphael include a number that show that he studied Michelangelo's sculpture of David and how he learned from certain of Leonardo's drawings - such as his studies for the (unfinished) painting "The Battle of Anghiari" with its melee of twisting, interweaving male figures in conflict. Raphael also learned from Leonardo's anatomical drawings and his drawings of babies or small children, sometimes in a strange interplay - is it play or struggle? - with their mothers; thes e are not unlike others Leonardo made studying children playing with cats.
Michelangelo explored the baby-and-mother theme also, in both painting and sculpture. It is clear that Raphael intently studied some of these works, too.
Very few artists of the period were not engaged at one time or another with the subject of mother and child. This was for a good reason: It was a widespread and favorite subject of paintings used for religious devotion. Raphael rapidly established himself as one of the supreme masters of this genre, bringing to it a blend of his own character, his clear analytical intelligence, and the sweet tranquillity of his Umbrian beginnings, as well as Leonardo's almost organic sense of human creatures enmeshed in instinctual bonds, and something of Michelangelo's heroic vigor and sculptural form.
In some ways, art was growing more secular at this time, but it was still largely at the service of the Roman Catholic church. If an artist was commissioned to paint a mother and child, it was almost certain to be a madonna, or the Virgin mother with her child Jesus. By Raphael's time, a considerable number of acceptable variations on this one theme had developed. The Virgin and child might be alone. Or they might be with Mary's mother, Anne. The child might be playing with the infant John the Baptist. A
group of saints might be included, particularly when the painting was an altarpiece. Because of the very human character of this theme, if an artist wanted his Virgin and child to be natural or convincing to ordinary viewers rather than solely an icon, he was bound to acknowledge its domestic and mundane connotations.
The mother and child were to prove Raphael's most popular subject partly because he painted them with touching gentleness - with sensitivity to the simple human affection of young women for their babies. Later taste has sometimes found Raphael's madonnas too fastidious or even saccharine. But they have continued to hold a place in the canon of great art.
His Virgin and child paintings, for all their felicity and harmony, were, as his drawings for them show, hard won. Their air of finality is the result of a process of exacting invention and exploration - of rejecting and refining until a consummation was reached.
His treatment of the subject varied greatly in arrangement, in sentiment, and in the degree to which it leaned toward overt piety or quiet humanity. But a balance of believability and idealism seems to have been Raphael's consistent aim. It was obviously a subject that had considerable appeal to him, not just as a bread-earner. He never resorted to formula or repetition.
Even in the "late" variation on the theme shown on this page - produced when Raphael was overwhelmed with work for the papal court in Rome and was having to allow his assistants increasing responsibility in carrying out and completing much of his work - he could still bring to bear on it scrupulous attention to detail and was still developing the way in which he could infuse its traditional iconography with his own brand of naturalness, classical poise, and lucidity. The drawing shown here is considered an autograph work - entirely from Raphael's hand. The painting for which it was a detailed preparation, however, is agreed by Raphael scholars to be the product of his workshop. (Originally made for a church in Naples, it now belongs to the Prado Museum in Madrid).
In an earlier drawing than the one shown, Raphael set out the general placement of the figures, drawing from posed studio assistants. Between that drawing and the one reproduced here, there were presumably others now lost. And it is simply not known what drawings, if any, intervened chronologically between this drawing (recently acquired by the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh) and the final painting. There are certain changes, particularly in the way the Virgin's throne is seen directly from th e front in the painting. But such adjustments could have been made during work on the painting, and if so the Edinburgh drawing may have been made immediately prior to the picture being painted.
The drawing pays such close attention to the exact fall of light and shadow needed to unify the final painting that it seems clear that Raphael knew at this stage that he was not going to work personally on the painting. Obviously he had to give his assistants much more precise instruction in the drawing than he would have needed to provide for himself. In spite of this, however, the drawing has nuances and sensitivity that are absent in the harder, even more definite, character of the painting. The subt lest differences can be seen, for instance, in the way both mother and child regard the two figures who eagerly enter from the left: the angel Raphael and the Apocryphal youth, Tobias, protected by that angel.
What the artist Raphael suggests with his wash drawing is a moment of reticence as these figures are about to encounter each other. But the assistants turn this into a full-fledged greeting. What was tentatively human in Raphael's drawing has become a set event in the public painting. The assistants did their remarkable best - so much so that past art historians have written enthusiastically about this painting as a Raphael; but there are limits to the ability of any copyist. Raphael thought with his bru sh. They copied with theirs.
Not only in this case, but in general, we know better from his drawings than from his paintings how experimental and genuinely feeling Raphael was in his fascination for the Virgin-and-child subject. This was not only a matter of composition. In the drawings, he reveals himself to be an intense and self-critical searcher for the most expressive or touchingly true way of depicting the closeness of a mother and her baby, as well as the relationship's playful charm and tender counterpoise. The mother's ming ling of authority and meekness, the child's mix of determined vitality and dependency, are expressed in many different ways. Sometimes in the finished madonnas, the sacrosanct finally seems to overwhelm the human, but this may well have been due to the demands of a particular patron or setting. In the relative privacy of his drawings, more of Raphael's own feelings seem evident.
THERE has been a tendency in writings about Raphael's madonnas to separate their popular appeal from what is thought to have been the artist's "real" concerns. Thus Heinrich Wolfflin wrote of the appeal of "their ... motherly love and childish gaiety, solemn dignity, and strange supernatural quality" but then added: "Yet a glance at Raphael's drawings would show that the problem, as the artist saw it, did not lie where the public would think...." The need, this art historian felt, was "to consider the pi cture from a formal point of view" rather than merely as "a question of a single charming head or this or that childish attitude." It was "the structure of a group as a whole, the harmonizing of the general directions formed by the movements of different heads and limbs" that should be studied. Presumably Wolfflin thought this because that is what many of Raphael's preparatory drawings for his madonnas are precisely concerned with: technical matters.
But even though the analysis that Wolfflin and others have applied to Raphael's drawings can be extremely revealing, the analysis can never be purely a formal matter - purely a matter of physical organization or of weight and counterweight, of figures subtly turning one way or another, of shadows and lights in marvelous balance. These things are there in the drawings as one develops into the next, but Raphael's concept is altered and rethought, scrapped and drawn differently, and not only for formal or a bstract reasons: Everything is ultimately at the service of the subject and its meaning.