La Belle Jardinière - A Raphael case study

October 21, 2011

This post is dedicated to the memory of Sylvie Béguin, a renowned scholar and leading exponent in the technical examination of Renaissance art, particularly the works of Raphael in the Louvre. 

La Belle Jardinière is among the most well-known of Raphael's paintings. Visited by millions at the Louvre each year, viewers marvel at the painterly skill of the young master from Urbino. Among scholars, this piece represents the pinnacle of Raphael's achievements prior to his departure for Rome. Gone are the stiffer compositions of Raphael's Umbrian phase under master Perugino. The stylistic influences of Raphael's Florentine exposure are clear to see, from Leonardo and Michelangelo particularly, and to a less documented extent, Fra Bartolomeo.

As is often the case with images which have achieved an iconic status, interesting nuances can be easily glossed over amidst a deluge of hyperbole. This post aims to avoid this, and instead explore the rich documentary and scientific evidence for this piece. Of particular interest is the debate over the date indicated in the hem of the Virgin's gown, as well as the link to a famous description in Vasari. Thanks to the efforts of technical staff at the Louvre, under the guidance of the late Sylvie Béguin, we now have some facts to match against the documentary accounts.

La Belle Jardinière (The Beautiful Gardener)
Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist
Dated c.1507-8
Louvre, Paris. Inventaire Napoléon 433. MR 433 Inv. 602
Oil on poplar panel
122 x 80 cm
Attribution status
Louvre listing as an autograph work by Raphael
?Completed by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio after left unfinished by Raphael (Vasari)

Before 1793
Early provenance of this picture is a matter of debate. Some associate this piece with a description by Vasari of an unfinished Madonna, to be completed by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio:

At the same time he painted a picture that was afterwards sent to Siena, although, on the departure of Raffaello, it was left with Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, to the end that he might finish a piece of blue drapery that was wanting. This happened because Bramante da Urbino, who was in the service of Julius II, wrote to Raffaello, on account of his being distantly related to him and also his compatriot, that he had so wrought upon the Pope, who had caused some new rooms to be made (in the Vatican), that Raffaello would have a chance of showing his worth in them. This proposal pleased Raffaello: wherefore, abandoning his works in Florence, and leaving the panel for the Dei unfinished, in the state in which Messer Baldassarre da Pescia had it placed in the Pieve of his native city after the death of Raffaello, he betook himself to Rome. 

This patron is inconsistently described in different editions of Vasari's work. The edition edited by Milanesi mentions "some gentleman from Siena" as the intended recipients, whereas the final Florentine version of Vasari's Lives edited by Passigli identifies Filippo Segrardi as this patron via a footnote. This is the only instance where this name is mentioned. At present there is no other documentation to corroborate this. Shearman also raises concerns as to whether Vasari's description matches this particular work - questioning the Segrardi identification, as well as state of the unfinished blue drapery (see also pigment characteristics, below):

This hypothesis about the origin of La Belle Jardinière has proved persuasive to many, and at times it has been elevated to a fact. Its weakness, however, on its textual merits alone, ought to have caused more concern, (for instance, Vasari does not say that Ridolfo's picture has passed to Francis I, who died in 1547). 

At some point it passed into the Royal Collection in France. Some speculate it was part of the French Royal Collection at Fountainbleau during the reign of Francis I but the exact date is also not verifiable by documentation until 1793, during the Reign of Louis XIV.

Stylistic features
This piece is widely regarded as the most accomplished Madonna and Child of Raphael's Florentine phase, combining elements learned from Leonardo - such as pyramidal composition and tilting of trunk postures of subjects. Nuance of interaction between Madonna and Child is often stated as influenced by Michelangelo's Madonna and Child sculpture, now in Bruges. Receiving far less coverage in the literature is the likely influence of Fra Bartolomeo on Raphael's use of colour. The Brightness of Raphael's hues are somewhere between Leonardo's sfumato and Michelangelo's bellezza di colore, with Fra Bartolomeo being an ideal model for this middle ground, described as unione (Hall 1992).

click to enlarge

Textual source and symbolic plants
La Belle Jardinière is thematically and stylistically linked to the earlier Madonna of the Goldfinch (Uffizi) and Madonna of the Meadow (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). The scene depicted is sourced from the Pseudo-Bonaventura text Meditationes vitae Christi (c.1300). It relates the encounter with Saint John on the return to Egypt:
It is said, that the part of the Jordan in which John baptized, is that over which the children of Israel passed, when they came through this desert on their way from Egypt; and that John did penance near the same place. So that it is at least possible that the Child Jesus might find him there on His return from Egypt, Fancy then you see him joyfully receiving them : while they, remaining with him awhile, and partaking of his coarse and homely fare, share with him, in return, the sweets of spiritual refreshment, and then take their leave of him. [Trans. Oakeley. 1868]

This was a common theme in Renaissance art, with liberties frequently taken in mode of depiction - compared to the textual source, which states the encounter took place in the desert, and not in a meadow or garden. As a result, the vegetation rendered in such scenes instead embody symbolic attributes of the figures. This hence differentiates this kind of depiction from the types known as a hortus conclusus (enclosed garden), which show the Virgin in defined space filled with symbolic plants and animals. For aesthetic and allegorical purposes such depictions were essentially hybrids of pre-existing forms, their fusion bringing a sense of thematic and visual unity.

The popular name of this painting, first ascribed in the 18th century (Beguin 1983) highlights that the Virgin is surrounded by plants - in this case with significant Christian iconographical meaning. As Meyer zur Capellen notes:
The columbine next to the infant refers to Christ and the Joys of Mary, the Passion is symbolized by the dandelion leaves and anemones at Mary's feet, while the strawberries were regarded as heavenly nourishment.

Condition,  panel & pigment characteristics: ultramarine sickness or unfinished?
Meyer zur Capellen describes the work as having "never been thoroughly restored". Panel reported as poplar. Gesso has been confirmed as comprising the ground layer, commonly found in other works by artists in this era and location.  The chemical composition of the gesso is not described in catalogue volumes. In addition, it has been noted the blue mantle of the Virgin has been affected by ultramarine disease. This deterioration of the blue pigment is central to its identification with the passage in Vasari describing the unfinished piece deferred to Ghirlandaio. As Shearman elaborated:

The painting of the robe suffers not, I think, from the intervention of another artist, but from a condition we call 'ultramarine sickness'...better described as a physical degeneration of the medium. This opaque, greyish blotchy effect in the indeed to be found in Ridolfo's paintings, but no less in the earlier work of Raphael. Hence the appearance of the robe is not logical evidence for the identification of this picture with the one mentioned by Vasari and so for a dual attribution.

Hemline date debate
Not uncommon among artists of this era, Raphael also added elements of a date and signature into the clothing of his subjects. In this instance, the inscription in the Virgin mantle's hemline reads: RAPHAELLO VRB. MDVII{I}. Although there has been some debate  over whether the date indicated is 1507 or 1508, technical staff at The Louvre have published findings stating the date as 1508, noting that under microscopical examination, remnants of an extra gold numeral to the right of the VII can bee seen (Béguin 1983, 1990).

Indication of suggested 1508 date, extrapolated from IR photograph

Preparatory studies
Infrared photography demonstrates several pentimenti, as well as evidence of pricked lines indicating use of a cartoon to trace he outline. Two preparatory studies and a cartoon exist, located at the Louvre, Chantilly and Holkham Hall respectively. The Holkham Hall study is regarded as the latter of the drawings, with the posing of the figures seen in the earlier drawings not yet fully approximating the finished version.

click to enlarge

Meyer zur Capellen remarks other intervening studies may have been required between the Louvre and Chantilly versions before Raphael arrived at the composition seen in the Holkham Hall variant. Evidence of this can be seen in Christ Child sketch at the Ashmolean in Oxford, which further accentuates the contrapposto pose quoted from Michelangelo's Madonna and Child.

click to enlarge

Béguin, S. Nouvelles analyses resultantes de l'etude et de la restauration des Raphael du Louvre.  Princeton Raphael Symposium. Hall, M.B, Shearman, J. (eds.) Princeton University Press. 1990. pp.40-47

Béguin, S. Raphael dans les collections francaises, exh. cat. Paris. 1983. pp.81-84 link

Bonaventure, Oakeley, F. [Trans.] The life of Jesus Christ. Simpkin, Marshall & Co. 1868. pp.60-61 link

Hall, Marcia B., Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting, Cambridge University Press. 1992. p. 93

Joannides, P.  The Drawings of Raphael: With a complete Catalogue. University of California Press. 1983. p.162.  link

Meditationes vitae Christi. Latin transcript : De reditu Domini ex Aegypto. Ultramontes. Accessed October 21 2011 link

McGregor, G. Raphael's Unione. Renaissance for Real. September 24 2011. Accessed 21 October 2011 link

Meyer zur Capellen, J. Raphael: A Critical Catalogue of His Paintings. Vol 1. Arcos-Verlag. 2001. pp. 257-263

Plesters. J. Ultramarine Blue, Natural and Artificial. Studies in Conservation.Vol. 11, No. 2 (May, 1966), pp. 62-91 link

Shearman, J. The Historian and the Conservator. Princeton Raphael Symposium. Hall, M.B, Shearman, J. (eds.) Princeton University Press. 1990. pp.8-9

Vasari, G.  Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors, and architects.  DeVere, G.C (Trans.) Ekserdijan, D.(ed.). Knopf. 1996

3PP would like to thank Dr. David Packwood from Art History Today and Dr. Frank DeStefano from Giorgione et al for their assistance with resources used in this case study.


Benjamin (Ben) said...

Fascinating! I'm intrigued by the work's traditional title (which was also the name of a 19th-century Parisian department store!). Did your research uncover anything about the title phrase--e.g. where it comes from, its associations, when it was first applied to the work, etc.?



Dr. F said...

The title is an obvious misnomer. The subject of the painting is "The Encounter with John the Baptist on the return from Egypt." Despite the flowers the setting is a desert one. Preachers and artists liked to depict the beginning of Christ's public life even in an infancy narrative.

The young Baptist holds the Cross instead of offering it to Jesus. It's as if he wants to be the sacrificial offering. The infant Jesus looks at his mother as if seeking her advice or guidance. Should He accept the Cross? It was a very popular subject in the Renaissance with many levels of meaning. For patrons it might be a reminder to take up their own cross and follow Christ under the guidance and protection of His Mother.


Unknown said...

@Ben - great question! I'm imagining your French is much better than mine - you will have no trouble reading the answer in the Beguin reference - which the link in the references includes a PDF of. The quick answer is - the name was first applied in the 18C!

@Frank - That's right! I will edit to include the textual source under the theme. You did a great post on this recurring theme in Raphael works as I recall.

edit: Pseudo-Bonaventura source added, see refs for more detail for the textual origins of the 'Return to Egypt'

Kind Regards

Anonymous said...

Great post!
Incidentally, like the other commenters before me, I was particularly intrigued by the painting’s modern title. I’d never really thought about it, but now that you mentioned it, it’s just so obvious that the name dates from the 18th century! After all, (female) gardeners were a popular subject in Baroque genre painting (see, for example, Jean-Frederic Schall’s Jolie Jardiniere au Chapeau de Paille / Pretty Gardener in a Strow Hat – perhaps not the best example, but the first thing a quick google search has brought up). So I’d say that by choosing that particular title for Raphael’s Madonna, spectators in 18th century France were sort of integrating the piece into their own (then) contemporary categories...

Unknown said...

@historienerrant - welcome to 3PP! Great point - in fact there was another painting given the same affectionate title - the most well known of which seems to be the portrait of Madame de Pompadour by Vanloo (1754-5) - which you can see an image of here


David Packwood said...

Hi H,

An excellent tribute post to Sylvie Béguin.

I'm sure Frank is right about the subject, though the background as desert doesn't leap out at me; there are buildings a church, although that must be symbolic. Obviously there's a difference between the terrain in this and the Madonna in the meadow, where I guess there is a hint of the hortus conclusus, or closed garden.

It could work both ways: either as religious narrative, or an iconic, less subject-specific picture. It's interesting that some Raphael scholars don't see it as the meeting between Christ and John in the desert; but then some don't accept that Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks shows the same meeting.



Unknown said...

@David! - thank you for your kind comments and assistance with resources for this post!

I'm not suprised to hear that Raphael scholars will fight over something in this piece too - they seem to revel in being disharmonious!

Kind Regards

Alberti's Window said...

Very interesting! I liked the detail image that you provided of the hemline date. I wasn't aware of this dating method by Raphael.

I also enjoying these comments, too. The French title is very interesting. I wonder if Francis I kept an inventory of his art collection at Fontainebleau. It would be interesting to comb through that inventory and see if there is anything that matches the description of this painting (and also to see how the painting was titled).

Unknown said...

Hi M! That method of signing and/or dating followed Raphael through most of his career, and was something he surely acquired from Perugino.

If there was a reference in the Francis I era of documentation, Shearman and/or Beguin would have surely mentioned it. You can read a bit more about earlier inventories in Beguin's catalogue description from the PDF link in the refs.

The French title of course makes sense in an 18C context, given the popularity of the 'female gardner' subgenre - but the title before that seems to have been simply "Virgin and child with Saint John"

Interestingly, I've never encountered any identification of the Church in the background. If indeed this work was bound for Siena, you'd imagine it to depict a Church from that town, but this has never been mentioned in the literature I've encountered. The Duomo di Siena looks markedly different for example. Given that Raphael had spent a part of his career there - one would imagine he knew what it looked like (c.late 1502/1503)

Kind Regards

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