Ben Thomas is Chair of  the Museums & Exhibitions Group of the Association of Art Historians, and co-curator with Catherine Whistler of Raphael: The Drawings at the Ashmolean Museum (1 June – 3 September 2017). This outstanding exhibition is described by the museum’s Director Dr Xa Sturgis as a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity – that of experiencing the visual and emotive power of Raphael’s hand, and of understanding Raphael’s genius.

The heads and hands of two apostles, c. 1519–20
Black chalk with over-pounced underdrawing with some white heightening, 49.9 x 36.4 cm
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Why did you decide to make a show of Raphael drawings at the Ashmolean?

Because the Ashmolean has the largest collection of Raphael drawings.

How did that happen?

Drawings by Raphael and Michelangelo were being sold by a dealer and Oxford University bought them as the result of a public subscription. That was in 1845.

What is the exhibition Raphael: The Drawings about?

It is a chance to look in depth at Raphael as a draftsman. We wanted to show how his drawings are eloquent in two senses: first in terms of the Renaissance culture that he was part of, and in another sense as intimate and immediate documents of his thought process.

The Virgin with the Pomegranate, c. 1504
Black chalk with compass indentation for the halo, 41.2 x 29.4 cm
© Albertina Museum, Vienna

What do his drawings convey?

Drawings allow you to see an artist thinking, almost as if you are alongside the artist. We felt that focussing on the drawings would allow a contemporary audience to appreciate Raphael for the exciting and creative artist that he was.

Are his drawings very different from those of his contemporaries, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti?

Yes, he learned from them both, and we see him responding to their art in his drawings, assimilating and changing it, and making his own art.

Study for an angel, c. 1515–16
Red chalk over some blind stylus, 19.7 x 16.7 cm
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Is he more modern than they are?

I think that, if you look at the range of drawings in the exhibition and the stylistic development, his style changes rapidly over only twenty years. It goes from a relatively static formula based on Pietro Perugino to one of the most expressive styles in the history of art.

What is this style?

It is his own style, which we can see in the second and final rooms. His own style which is both a synthesis but also something highly original, and drawing was the means by which he arrived at this originality.

What is so original in Raphael’s style?

Moving eloquent figures orchestrated in complex compositions. That is how he tells stories effectively, so that emotion is communicated through the representation of movement.

Head of an apostle, c. 1519–20
Black chalk over pouncing, some indentations (probably later) along the contours of the pupils, nose, neck
and hair; the drawing slightly extended onto the early support by a collector, with some minimal reworking in
this area, 24 x 18.2 cm
© Albertina Museum, Vienna

Are these drawings the basis for his paintings and frescoes?

Yes, they are preparatory for the Vatican frescoes and his famous last painting, The Transfiguration, which is in the Vatican Museum. But we also wanted to show how Raphael discovered forms and drew for pleasure, not necessarily with a project or painting in mind.

How many drawings are on show in the exhibition?

120 drawings, which is about 30 per cent of his existing drawings.

Over what time period were they made?

From about 1500 to 1520, when he died at the age of only 37.

Putto holding the Medici Ring, c. 1513–14
Black chalk with white heightening, later framing lines in black chalk, 33.8 x 19.3 cm
© Teylers Museum, Haarlem

Did he draw all his life?

His father was an artist and so Raphael learned to draw from his father, and at the end of his life drawing was how he coordinated several major projects.

Did he write about drawing?

It is curious. Yes, he writes about drawing in a letter about his project to map the remains of ancient Rome. The style of drawing he describes is very technical, like a surveyor’s or an architect’s drawing. Sadly we don’t have anything written by him about the type of drawings in this exhibition, but they speak for themselves.

Where do the drawings in the exhibition that are not in the Ashmolean’s collection come from?

The Albertina Museum in Vienna, the Louvre in Paris, the Royal Collection at Windsor, the British Museum in London, the Uffizi in Florence, as well as from other lenders in Frankfurt, Budapest and private collections.

Study for the Three Graces, c. 1517–18
Red chalk over some blind stylus, 20.3 x 25.8 cm
© The Royal Collection Trust, HM Queen Elizabeth II

Is Raphael as great in his drawings as he is in his painting and frescoes?

I would say he is greater in his drawings.

Why?

Because you can see him inventing his new concepts and also doing outstanding technical feats which cannot be translated into paintings. Some of the drapery studies for example are much more complex in the drawings than in the paintings.

Studies for the Madonna of Francis I, c. 1518
Red chalk over blind stylus, 33.6 x 21.4 cm
© Gallerie degli Uffizi, Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe, Florence

Who were his pupils?

The most famous is Giulio Romano. There are some doubts about attribution and some scholars would say that drawings we have included, especially the later ones, are by Giulio. But we believe that all the drawings in the exhibition are by Raphael. The exhibition is about Raphael’s creativity. We tried not to focus on attribution. It is an ongoing discussion among Raphael scholars, but probably will never be completely resolved.

Enjoy this interview? Share it with a friend.

Oxford, June 2017.

Ashmolean Museum, Raphael: The Drawings Exhibition