A Museum Mystery's Happy Ending

The Monitor invites you to sit in on a series of conversations with curators at major art museums on choice objects in their collections

Drawings by Raphael are rare in American collections; late drawings by this High Renaissance master even rarer.

A couple of years ago, the Art Institute of Chicago - so far as was known - owned nothing by Raphael. But in May 1996, the museum announced that it did, after all, possess a fine late Raphael drawing. In black chalk with white highlights over a stylus underdrawing, it depicts a hand held up in an authoritative gesture of blessing.

Since April 1997 (through Sept. 8), this drawing has been displayed in an exhibition to mark the publication of a catalog of the institute's pre-1600 Italian drawings. Suzanne McCullagh, curator of earlier prints and drawings (she started at the museum 22 years ago) tells the story of this major find.

It began, Dr. McCullagh says, when she decided 10 years back to "do a really thorough job on our drawing collection, giving at least some attention to what we owned" and publishing the results. She felt it was important "to redress the balance" this way. Museums sometimes overlook their own possessions because they "are forced to do wonderful exhibitions of other people's things all the time. Blockbusters of things that they don't own."

Also, as curator, what she had inherited was a collection of notably great master drawings, the fruit of years of curatorial pursuit. These had "put us on the map, actually," she says. But the institute had also accrued thousands of drawings, gifts "that had never been fully studied." Many had been "put on high shelves to deal with later, and this is where they stayed" - in some cases, since World War II or earlier.

These neglected items tended to be minor. "Many of them, in fact, were 19th-century British watercolors, rather miserable things." Some curators would have happily continued to ignore them.

But McCullagh is a stickler. She insisted that every last drawing be studied and published, even - as in the case of the early Italian drawings - the many copies. "You never know, " she says, "when a copy reproduces something that's been lost or tells you something about a work that's been changed. Or," she adds, "it might even be by somebody very interesting."

It was one of the "last boxes to be found" that proved how right she was. It contained some "not terribly illustrious drawings, copies after Raphael and his school." Among them was this drawing with " 'lead white' problems. All the lovely highlights of it were ugly black - very unattractive. It didn't look very good. Lead white, which starts out as lead carbonate, can become lead sulphide: It turns black."

With the help of a grant, McCullagh invited an international selection of experts to look over the institute's drawings. Many of them had seen the unpromising drawing, but "even though it had an old attribution in a French hand to Raphael, it was a logical first assumption that it was just a copy."

As work progressed, though, the drawing became one of several that puzzled McCullagh and research curator Laura Giles, co-author of the planned catalog. "We began to realize that it wasn't behaving very much like a copy." When copies are of parts of figures, they are "usually heads, not hands. More often, they are of compositions or compositional groups."

The drawing did resemble a hand gesture in Raphael's last great painting, "The Transfiguration" (1518-20). Yet in certain ways it just did not accord with it.

One of the visiting scholars was Konrad Oberhuber, who had commented on the drawing's quality. "But only when he came back to see the Monet show [in 1995] did we bring it forward once more - and he looked at it again carefully. He said: 'You know, if you tried to visualize it without the disfigurement of the black spots, you would realize that it actually has some real qualities to it." And some of these qualities were characteristic only of Raphael and his closest follower, Giulio Romano.

THIS was the breakthrough. The drawing was taken to Oxford and London for comparison with two of the finest collections of late Raphael drawings. Several British experts were now convinced of its authenticity. McCullagh and Ms. Giles brought it back to Chicago, where the conservation department succeeded in reversing the worst of the black marks, so that the highlights, if not bright white, are at least a soft gray. A watermark of the right date was found when the drawing was remounted.

Meanwhile, in a fresco by Giulio Romano, Giles found a hand (of St. Peter) gesturing in a similar way to the drawing. In the Sala di Costantino in Rome, this fresco was painted by Giulio after preparatory drawings made by Raphael just before he died in 1520. Although the fresco detail was more Mannerist than Raphael's drawing, it could clearly have been modeled on it.

Now, finally, the institute felt safe in calling the drawing a Raphael. The catalog is out. The drawing is published. And so far, not a single "nay-sayer" - to use McCullagh's word for the inevitable doubters in her profession - "has come forward."

Interview by

Christopher Andreae

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