The nineteenth century, Raphael and art revolution

March 31, 2011

Raphael seems to occupy a curious place in scholarly circles and the public imagination. Like the immense popularity currently associated with Caravaggio and Leonardo, Raphael was once the perennial favourite among scholars and the art adoring public of the 19th century. This obsession was particularly prominent in England, with the Royal Academy of artists espousing history painting as the medium's highest form. Similar stances were also held by other European academies.

This eventually led to discontentment among emerging artists across Europe. In France, Raphael was cunningly aped by Manet in Le Déjeuner sur L'Herbe, this revolutionary work taking its composition directly from a Raphael designed Judgement of Paris engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi.

In England the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed in 1848, with a vehement disapproval of the Royal Academy's refusal to accept new innovation in art. The enchanting works produced by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood are now highly recognisable, yet there are still misconceptions about their unique moniker. Even the great advocate for the PRB, prolific author and art critic John Ruskin described the choice of name as "unfortunate and somewhat ludicrous".

A landmark Pre-Raphaelite work. John Everett Millais' rendition of the death of Ophelia.

This choice of name was not a rejection of the great achievements of the young Italian master, but a clever strategy to bring attention to their new approach. What better way to do this than to undermine what was regarded as the golden standard of artistic achievement? In many ways, the PRB and the Neo-classicists that followed were recycling themes from past eras for their own purposes, developing an highly stylised representation that was as historically idealised as Raphael's art was sanitised.

As art history scholarship in the English language developed a firm footing during this period, it became difficult to formally study Raphael and maintain a focus on the 16th century. Invariably a discussion about Raphael or the Renaissance became a discussion of its 19th century repercussions.

The piece I would like to present is a remarkable example of this. Renowned landscape artist John Constable painted Cenotaph to the memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds between 1833-6 after visiting and sketching it in 1823.  The actual monument was built by art patron and occasional artist Sir George Beaumont to honour Reynolds, whom he considered to be the father of English painting. The first stone for the cenotaph was laid in 1812.

Sir Joshua Reynolds' Rembrandtesque 1780 Self Portrait, with bust of Michelangelo

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) was one of the founding members of the Royal Academy, and its first elected president. J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) is recorded as being very fond of Reynolds work, and was buried at his side in St. Paul's Cathedral, London. Later artists such as the Pre-Raphaelites and William Blake were succinctly dismissive of his impact on British Art.

This memorial monument or cenotaph is located in the private gardens of Coleorton Hall in Leicestershire in the UK. It is a striking example of the degree of idolisation 19th century art lovers held towards the Renaissance masters, particularly Raphael.

The 1823 sketch does not include the busts of Michelangelo and Raphael

Flanking each side of the memorial dedicated to Reynolds is a bust of Michelangelo and Raphael. Including busts of past heroes in artworks was a common means of forcing a symbolic comparison - in this case the symbolism transcends the canvas, with these busts actually actually existing on the Leicestershire property. This essentially makes Beaumont's cenotaph a 3-dimensional 19th century tableau - capturing in stone the great regard of this generation for the masters of the past.

A related consideration is tracking changes in an artists popularity in any given era. Is there a reason beyond the Academy that explains Raphael's great appeal in the 19th century?

The closest we may get to an answer is that the 19th century represented the British Empire at its zenith in power and influence. In many ways it saw itself as the purveyor of Western culture to the wilder regions of the earth. From India to Australia - the British Empire believed itself the great guardian of Western tradition. In this sense, the refinement seen in High Renaissance artists were an ideal visual means of representing this outlook. Raphael's School of Athens was no longer just a decoration for the Pope's Library, but came to symbolise the intellectual virtues of the Western world, including the great figures who had contributed to this cultural tradition.

Causarum Cognitio (Knowledge of Causes) is the true name of this famous Raphael fresco. School of Athens was a Grand Tourist nickname which unfortunately stuck.

After the mechanised brutality of the First World War, Raphael seemed to make less sense. In Western art, the greatest departures from established modes of artistic depiction happened at the dawn of the 20th century. The Modern Era had truly begun. 

This perhaps explains to some degree why an artist such as Caravaggio has risen to prominence. In fact 2010 was stated by many as the year of Caravaggio - with scholarly and media coverage of this artist eclipsing both Leonardo and Michelangelo. A quick way to test this is via a Google trends comparison - which demonstrate a significantly higher response for Caravaggio in 2010 than either of the Renaissance masters. In an era of film, reality programming and graphic violence rendered in high definition images via television and the Internet, Caravaggio's brutal and often bloody realism has a new, profound resonance.

Caravaggio's graphic realism appears like a film still to modern audiences

By modern tastes, the refined and serene images of Raphael have taken a back seat to the more ostentatious Caravaggio. In fact, the most well known Raphael image in this era seems to be the putti from The Sistine Madonna, commonly seen in art prints, and packaging for a massive range of products. Many people will be familiar with this image, and have heard of Raphael, but may not be able to link the two.

Raphael scholars in the world of art history seem to be a guarded bunch, with the only mention of Raphael in the popular media usually being in the news. There is hope however, blogs such as 3PP and David Packwood's Art History Today often feature Raphael discussion beyond the thoughtful putti.

In the afterglow of the digital enlightenment we are currently experiencing, even Raphael's School of Athens is slowly making a comeback as a representative image of an intellectual ideal.

If you too have a deep fascination with the young master from Urbino, visit this link for more 3PP featured articles on Raphael, including excerpts from some fabulous and seldom seen documentaries. 

For a glimpse of what the actual cenotaph looks like and an explanation of what the stag in the painting represents- watch this short excerpt from Andrew Graham-Dixon's 2009 film, Constable in Love.  


Juliette said...

Re the Carravagio - there's certainly some realism in his expression, but I think she ought to be needing to put more effort in to strangle a full grown man! My lecturer in History of Art pointed that out once and showed us another painting of the same scene where the woman is really struggling and her muscles are obviously working hard to get the job done - but I can't remember which one it was!

Hels said...

I know this is only one tiny example that you used, but you actually answered a question the students and I had last week.

You know the terrific George Lambert painting called The Sonnet c1907 (National Gallery Canberra)? We traced the influence back to Manet's Le Déjeuner sur L'Herbe c1863 easily enough. The naked woman in the presence of beautifully groomed men was familiar. But going back into Renaissance art was more difficult - Titian perhaps?

Thanks for the reference to Raphael's Judgement of Paris, engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi :)

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@Juliette - I think you may be referring to Artemisia Gentileschi's versions(Uffizi and Naples). The scene is depicting Judith decapitating Holofernes, rather than strangling him!

Artemisia's versions are notable for being inspired by Caravaggio's piece, but also resonating with her own emotional anguish due to her being a victim of rape.

There is a post at Gender across borders blog that explores this a bit more.

@Hels - Lambert's Sonnet(1907) seems to echo his Model Resting(1901) which so clearly draws from Velazquez Rokeby Venus. There are of course antecedent images going back to Titian's own Venus of Urbino and the Pastoral Concert, and Giorgione's Dresden Venus which itself mirrors nudes from antiquity.

Click the links above for more on the Lambert pieces from the NGAu. Also, dont forget the AHDB to quickly find resources such as the Raimondi link - that's how I found it!

Kind Regards

Juliette said...

That was it! Thanks! Sorry, I have a terrible memory and the class was years ago

Unknown said...

Cheers Juliette - I've also fixed the link to the Artemisia article from above, which may come out as broken in some browsers:

Artemisia Gentileschi article on Gender across borders


Benjamin (Ben) said...

Talking of Actaeon.... the Constable painting screams "Titian" to me, and I think C is on record as being an admirer of Titian's landscapes. Apart from the obvious references to Michelangelo and Raphael, he also manages to sneak some Venice in there, surely.

Unknown said...

Hi Ben!

If you click the name of the painting in the article link(above Mr Reynolds), it will take you to the Google Art Project's page for this work - where its present location seems to agree with your point nicely!

Considering Titian's well known version of Diana and Actaeon, it's not a huge surprise that it resonated with Constable and Beaumont.


Alberti's Window said...

Very interesting post. I'm particularly intrigued by your suggestion regarding the comparatively recent popularity for Caravaggio. Your reasons make sense to me - especially since the Baroque period (and Caravaggio) were not always considered in high favor. In the 18th and early 19th century, the term "baroque" had negative and abusive connotations within the art world. Today, though, we do favor the drama and realism portrayed by Baroque artists like Caravaggio. Interesting observation.

Also, on a side note, the context of your post made me think that the self-portrait of Reynolds is a little bit like Raphael's Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione. I have no idea if Reynolds intentionally wore a black hat in order to mimic this portrait by Raphael (like you mentioned, the portrait is also "Rembrandtesque"), but it's a fun visual connection between Raphael and Reynolds.

Heidenkind said...

Excellent post as always, H. Contemplating why some artists are more popular in certain time periods than others is always interesting. To me it seems like art--European art, anyway--is always fluctuating between idealism and emotion. The PRBs and their artistic associates were very much about evoking emotion with their work, while Reynolds was more about depicting the ideal, and that's reflected very clearly in their respective influences I think.

Right now we're definitely in a period that's more about emotion, which is why the PRBs have regained so much popularity in recent years. I think it also serves to explain Caravaggio's resurgence in popularity.

david packwood said...

I don't know Constable that well, so I was intrigued by the comparison between the two leading renaissance masters. I like what Ben is saying about the Titian effect; could it be too fanciful to think that Constable was playing up the painterly and the sculptural, assuming that there was such an interest in the paragone in the 19th century. It would be a novel way to present it in English parkland!

Thanks for the link.


Unknown said...

Cheers for the lovely comments!

@M - Interesting observation! Most sources on Reynolds indicated he was most keen to model himself on Rembrandt, the aged master rather than a young hotshot like Raphael, but the stylistic inspiration for images like the Castiglione portrait was there. In addition, the manner of posing figures for portraits filtered through from the Renaissance to the Baroque, and into Reynolds' era.

@heidenkind - that's a great observation! I think I was scraping at it in some fashion but didn't nail it as succinctly - that fluctuation between emotion and idealism is exactly what the dynamic seems to be. In a previous post mentioning the PRB I labelled Ophelia as 'Renaissance realism meets Medieval angst' so I think I've been musing in a similar direction!

@David - as yourself and Ben have astutely recognised, it seems the Venetian influence on the depiction of this scene is quite deliberate. It's not suprising therefore that this Constable work is presently displayed in the 'Titian and his legacy' Room at the NGL! I'm sure you'll notice it next time you're there :)


Benjamin (Ben) said...

I'm enjoying this thread. (I think H has said this somewhere else, but it's really nice that art history blogs are routinely getting so many more on-point comments these days.)

The painterly / sculptural point is an interesting one, and makes a lot of sense. And since we're thinking binaries, how about explicit references to other artists versus allusions? "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter." Here, I'm "hearing" Reynolds, Michelangelo and Raphael, but seeing a lot more Titian (etc.).

Unknown said...

Great point Ben! I think there is that extra computational step for modern viewers to make the Titian connection, but this may not have been the case when Constable exhibited that piece.

To the 19th Century art enamoured, I imagine it would have been hard to see the stag and not think of Titian's Diana and Actaeon and Death of Actaeon.

The latter part of the 19thC in particular was dedicated to the adoration of Titian as much as the earlier period was consumed with Raphael and Michelangelo. This was due in no small part to Ruskin of course. There were some great posts on Ruskin and Venice at Art History Today.

I think the increasing comments on these blogs are a testimony to the great effort being put into them, and the respect we show for our commenters.

Having a comment swamped in the madness of something like Jonathan Jones blog at The Guardian and getting into a cozy conversation at a curated private blog are entirely different experiences! I am hoping we are proving the latter is more rewarding.


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

As always, a fascinating post. And the redesign is gorgeous!

Unknown said...

Many thanks Vicky! Glad you enjoyed the post, and the re-design. I *almost* have it looking just the way I want it!

Kind Regards

Picturetalk321 said...

Love this post and all the pictures. I wonder whether two additional things may have weighed in favour of Caravaggio (an odd choice for contemporary hero, in many ways): his personal life (lends itself to dramatic speculation -- but then so does Michelangelo's), and what is perceived as his post-modernism avant la lettre. I'm thinking of Mieke Bal's idiosyncratic argument that post-modernism influenced Caravaggio (she sort of turns chronology inside out - very interesting). Also, come to think of it, in the early 90s, the notion of the sublime made a big come-back, and possibly coupled with an increased fascination with the Baroque, people's thoughts turned to Caravaggio? But now to Raphael! It doesn't help that he is associated with the kitsch of the putti and other chocolate box covers, and somehow also associated with that most discredited art form of all: 19th-C. academic salon painting (my own research passion). In Germany (whence I hail), the Sistine Madonna in Dresden was for many centuries hailed as the be all and end all of artistic perfection (I think she's the one with the putti at the bottom, isn't she?) and then she plummeted in the 20th, at the same time that Grünewald's star rose (along with Expressionism). I love the Sistine Madonna (I would) and the pouty tousled fat baby in her arm. :-) Also, the Constable you discuss is GORGEOUS.

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