Examining workshop attributions - a Raphael case study

December 6, 2011

Madonna della Rosa. Raphael and workshop. c.1517-20. Prado Museum. Madrid

An upcoming old masters sale at Sotheby's London lists a depiction of the Holy Family attributed to the workshop of Raphael. Having covered how to define authorship of a workshop piece, and outlined a framework for assessing attribution reports, I was eager to use this opportunity to explore the evidence presented.

Before proceeding, I would like to clarify I do not have an opinion on the authenticity of any reported piece. I am more interested in the mode of reporting, and the standard of evidence presented by professionals in the art market and academia. With Raphael attribution research being a major focus of my own project, such examples are a welcome exercise in reviewing the known evidence for a piece, and contrasting this against published reports in different media. In this case, the focus is the catalogue entry for the Sotheby's sale. An electronic version can be viewed here link

Attributed to the workshop of Raphael. Copy after Madonna della Rosa. Private Collection.

After Madonna della Rosa (The Madonna of the Rose)
Date not cited
Oil on panel
105.5 cm x 89.5 cm
Listed in Sotheby's sale catalogue as by the workshop of Raphael, primarily due to an inscription on the reverse: "No.3/ Escuela de Raphael"
Noted as a workshop copy after the variant in the Prado Museum, Madrid.
No specific workshop contributor is identified
Nb. A rose is not present in the stated workshop copy. For the Prado variant, the rose is usually described as a later addition.

Stylistic - Thematic source
The depiction of the Holy Family is common to Renaissance art and to Raphael and his school. Variations of this theme exist in Raphael's catalogue of known works since his earlier Florentine phase, such as Holy Family with a Lamb (c.1504,7) two versions of which are now commonly discussed in the literature. 

Iconographically, the image of the Holy Family with Saint John and Christ depicted as infants is related to an extra-Biblical source known as the Pseudo-Bonaventura, which states the meeting occurred  during the return of the Holy Family from Egypt. Raphael depicted this meeting numerous times, including in some of his most famous works, such as La Belle Jardinière at the Louvre and the Madonna of the Goldfinch at the Uffizi. For more on the history of this theme in Raphael's work, see this earlier post link

As far as examining the validity of the Sotheby's listing, it is acceptable to state a work depicting this theme is characteristic of paintings produced by Raphael and his workshop.

Documentary sources and provenance
As seen with the recent Caravaggio Saint Augustine attribution, a well established provenance (ownership history) can bestow a good deal of credibility to an attribution. In the workshop piece listed by Sotheby's the provenance is somewhat sketchy:

Spanish source?
The Prado version is first documented in the Spanish Royal Collection in 1667. The details of its journey from Italy to Spain are not known. Copies of the Madonna della Rosa were hence popular in Spain. An inscription on the back of the workshop panel identifies "Escuela de Raphael" (The School of Raphael). Unfortunately there are no corresponding inventory entries or other forms of evidence supplied to verify the presence of this picture in Spain during any given time period.

Paris to London (present owner)
The next phase of ownership is remarked as the source from which the ancestors of the current owner acquired the piece, c.1900. How the painting travelled from Spain to Paris is presently unknown. The Prado version is noted to have been taken from Madrid to Tours in France during the Napoloenic Wars. The possibility of a similar fate befalling the workshop copy may be speculated, but requires validation, ideally in a corresponding French inventory. Such detail is presently not mentioned.

It should be noted this piece can not be linked to any of the 15 known copies listed in the most recent Raphael catalogue by Meyer zur Capellen. Two London copies are cited (ex Agnew, ex Munro), though Sotheby's has confirmed that their sale piece is not among this list.

Visual and technical analysis (previously reported as connoisseurship)
Little information is supplied in the Sotheby's catalogue entry. Upon inquiry, it was confirmed that no under-surface scans had been completed (X-Ray, Infrared etc), and that the panel species is believed to be poplar, though this has not been confirmed via detailed means (ie. suggesting visual examination alone)

Condition report
A condition report is available to registered users. The information provided sheds a little more light on the state of the work, but deliberately avoids any statement about how these visual observations may be related to authorship.
The catalogue illustration is too red in tone. The support consists of three large upright pine(?)panels held by two horizontal battens on the reverse. The bottom left hand corner has a small diagonal break and there is a vertical 15 cm old split running up from the bottom edge in the centre panel. The painting is now dirty and its varnish layer discoloured. The paint surface is in reasonably good condition overall, with no major damages. The surface has had a history of instability and flaking in the past, for some areas, such as the background and left side of the panel remain uneven in raking light and much restoration is in evidence here, notably to the background, the drapes and beard of Saint Joseph and the face and drapes of the young Baptist. The right side of the panel is much better preserved, with only minor local scattered retouchings except around the head of the Madonna where a few larger losses are in evidence. The background here has been washed over. The restoration has discoloured in some areas and is visible to the naked eye. Offered in a plain gilt wood frame, numerous chips and small losses.
A disclaimer is appended that the above report is a general description, and that prospective buyers are encouraged to supply an expert of their own to examine the piece further. Whilst this is understandable given the realities of the art market, it is perhaps regrettable that such pragmatism does not apply to their application of a "workshop" tag.

Sotheby's had confirmed that a pigment analysis has been completed, although the results of this are not published in the catalogue entry, and only available on request. The results, listed below are congruous with findings from Italian panels pre 1700. The examiner in this instance is cited as independent restorer Catherine Hassall.
The panel was given a ground of white gesso. The gesso was based on calcium sulphate, which is what one would expect on an Italian panel painting. Between the gesso and the paint layers is a thin, pinkish-coloured imprimatura layer of oil mixed with a little red lead and lead white. This layer was applied to the gesso to seal it, so that the oil paints would not soak in. This was commonly done for early oil paintings. The blue is finely-ground azurite. The bright yellow used for highlights is lead tin yellow. Conclusion: The ground and the pigments are fine for a sixteenth-century oil painting. [Because of the use of lead tin yellow and azurite, it cannot be any later than 1700].
The above findings are expected for a piece labelled workshop of Raphael. Caution must be expressed however - pigment findings on their own can not provide a scope of detail sufficient to confirm an attribution. Writing about the Portrait of Bindo Altoviti (a piece also wavering in attribution between Raphael and his assistants), Carol Christensen notes:
...analytical techniques, such as pigment identification cannot be used to distinguish between the two artists, since Raphael and Giulio [Romano], working together in the same shop, are likely to have used the same pigments, perhaps even the same layering of paint. Pigment and cross-sectional analysis would be more meaningful if a large group of samples from paintings close in date, by both artists, could be studied for similarities, and differences.
With particular regard to the ground layer, calcium sulphate is consistent with other Raphael pieces, and with artists who spent their formative years in Florence in particular. Formative work done by the late Joyce Plesters and others have shed more light on this. At the very least, it is an indicator of the work being commenced in Italy, or perhaps by an artist trained in Italy,
Of the rather limited number of analyses...of gesso grounds of Italian panel paintings, gypsum has occurred more frequently as the white inert of Venetian School paintings, whereas Florentine and Sienese School paintings tend to have either pure anhydrite(Calcium Sulphate), or a mixture of anhydrite with gypsum. Results are insufficient to be of statistical significance as of yet, but it would clearly be of interest to have more identifications of the grounds of other paintings...
Support: panel, canvas, confusion? 
For the Prado version, there is some confusion in the literature on this point. Meyer zur Capellen notes,
The work is one of the few paintings Raphael painted straight onto canvas. Already at an early date the canvas was given a double lining. The X-Ray photograph as well as inspection of the surface reveal numerous losses and cracks, probably the reason for the extra lining.  
In contrast, Rafael Alonso, reporting on the conservation of Raphael works in Spain quite clearly states the contrary,
Of these, four were transferred from their original wooden supports to canvas during the years when they were in Paris, from 1813 to 1818, having been taken out of Spain during the retreat of the Napoleonic army. The necessity for changing the supports, deemed absolutely imperative at the time, and described by Villa-Urrutia, was highly praised by Spanish witnesses who claimed that the paintings suffered scarcely any damage or loss of color. The four paintings that were transferred to canvas are: Spasimo de Sicilia, The Visitation, Madonna of the Fish and Madonna of the Rose. The radical treatment of these works resulted in the loss of their original supports, an integral and essential part of any work, but also altered their appearance completely, for the transfer gave them a different quality and texture, in which the weave of the cloth on which they were glued was plainly revealed, instead of the smooth, even, refined surface of the panel.
In a more recent account by Ruiz-Manero, the question of whether the Prado version was painted on panel still seems to be a matter of debate,
For a long time, it was considered that the picture was executed on panel and subsequently transferred to canvas. At the present time, Professor Garrido holds that it was painted on this second support [i.e. canvas] and that the original canvas is thus very similar to that of other works of Raphael…When observing it, according to some opinions, one has the impression that its aspect is not that of a painting originally realised on canvas. There is the possibility, in my opinion, that the picture was realised on canvas and then attached to a panel at some point, which would explain the vertical damages.
Workshop delineation
The Prado Madonna della Rosa itself is regarded as autograph to varying degrees depending on which scholar is consulted. Oberhuber argued in favour of Raphael as sole author, whereas others, including Meyer zur Capellen gives passages to Raphael and other sections to the workshop. Pupils Giulio Romano and Gianfrancesco Penni have been mentioned intermittently, though neither source seems entirely conclusive.

Arguing for a workshop copy is made increasingly easier if a cartoon or preparatory drawing of some kind exists. Even better is a cartoon with tiny holes known as spolveri, or pin-pricks indicating a image transfer process commonly used in workshop copies.

Experts commenting on which artist painted what section often use very broad language. Analysts in search of detailed points of differentiation (myself included) are often left unsatisfied by such statements. This is particularly frustrating given that contrasting observations are often made by other authors. That being said, these authors have seen the work in person, and I have not - so we must for now, acquiesce their observations. The following is from Meyer zur Capellen,
It is also worth mentioning that the execution of the Madonna della Rosa is of much higher quality in regard to the fine rendition, for instance, and the harmony of the brilliant, but not jarring colour, so that is seems right to give the central group to Raphael....participation of the workshop is most obvious in the figure of St Joseph.
Factors worthy of closer scrutiny
Unfortunately, a documented assessment by a scholar or conservator with a history of close examination of Raphael/workshop pieces is not available in this instance. Anecdotal reports have been forwarded, with each specialist affirming the belief that is a quality copy, but nothing concrete on what constitutes the 'workshop' label.

We have descriptions of the Prado piece (see Capellen), and its high resolution image to allow for closer scrutiny. In comparison, the Sotheby's catalogue entry does not come with a similarly detailed image, though one was provided on request. The modelling of the figures in the alleged workshop variant seem similarly executed, with no major anatomical variations between the two pieces. The greater disparity seems to be in the execution of colour and finer detail, particularly around the drapery, flesh tones and diaphanous head-dress of Mary. An expert comparison of these factors in particular would be valuable. The image below compares key points of the Prado vs workshop attributed versions (left and right, respectively). nb. The 'redness' of the Sotheby's provided image has been left intact, a colour calibrated sample would have been preferable in this instance.

click to enlarge

The further away from the masters hand a piece gets, the less steep the price, with a corresponding decrease in the amount of evidence presented in its favour. In the absence of further data, can this piece be confidently claimed as a production of Raphael's workshop? It is a piece worthy of further study, even if only to clarify these details, and allow a more detailed comparison with the Prado version. For now,  the question that remains is whether potential buyers are willing to part with 40+ thousand pounds based on the information presented?

Congratulations to the new owners of this piece, which fetched £103,250 at auction. It will be interesting to see if any further study is conducted on this panel. I also wonder if the recent announcement of another workshop Raphael - a portrait of Julius II - may have promoted confidence to acquire this piece? A fuller account of the 'new' Julius II will follow at a later date.

Alonso. R. (Trans. Talbot, T.). Restoration of he Madonna of the Oak and Conservation of Raphael's Paintings in the Prado. in The Princeton Raphael Symposium: Science in the Service of Art History. Princeton University Press. 1990. pp.141-147

Beck, J. From Duccio to Raphael - Connoisseurship in Crisis. European Press Academic Publishing. 2007. p.55 

Christensen, C. Raphael's Portrait of Bindo Altoviti. Princeton Raphael Symposium. Hall, M. B. & Shearman, J.(eds). Princeton University Press. 1990. p.136-137

Madonna della Rosa. Prado Museum site. Accessed December 6 2011 link

Meyer zur Capellen, J. Raphael - The Paintings. Arcos Verlag. 2003. Vol 2. pp.178-182 

Old Master and British Paintings Day Sale for December 8 2011. Lot 107. Sotheby's.com. Accessed December 6 2011 link

Plesters, J. Technical Aspects of Some Paintings by Raphael in the National Gallery London. Princeton Raphael Symposium. Hall, M. B. & Shearman, J.(eds). Princeton University Press. 1990. p.33

Ruiz-Manero. Pintura Italiana del Siglo XVI en Espana. Vol.2 Rafael y su escuela. Madrid. 1996. online excerpt: link

3PP would like to thank Sotheby's staff, particularly Mr. A. Fletcher for providing additional data and images for this report, and Dr. Edward L. Goldberg for the translation of the Ruiz-Manero text.


Edward Goldberg said...

Thanks, Hasan,for this exercise in inspired common sense! The first thing that strikes me is the dubious translation of "Escuela de Raphael" as "Workshop of Raphael". "School of Raphael" is strictly accurate, with the implied meaning of "Follower of Raphael" or "Someone influenced by Raphael". In Spanish, "Taller de Raphael" is "Workshop of Raphael",with the implication of "Produced at the time of Raphael, probably in his presence, with possibly some personal intervention"--which is clearly not the case with the Sotheby's picture. It is a reasonably atractive work from a few generations after Raphael, I would guess. Attributions are normally done in haste by auction houses, based on the presumed sale value of the object. No one there is ever going to break a sweat for 10% or 20% of 40,000 pounds!

Dr. F said...


In the paper shown by the Baptist the letters "GN" for Agnus are clearly visible in the Prado version but not in the replica. Was it hard to get a good image or was the "N" missing on the replica?


Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@Ed - that's an interesting point re- the translation of "Escuela". I imagine this is the same in Italian, where you see descriptions of "Scuola" and "La Bottega"? I'm curious as to why this wasn't picked up by the Sotheby's cataloguers.

It is a shame 10-20% of 40K is peanuts to the art market, knowledge suffers in the long run. I guess we're lucky to have the above information - something is better than nothing!

@Frank - I do have a high-res image, though you can see it in the above image if you zoom in - the 'N' from the inscription denoting 'ECCE AGNVS DEI'is obscured between the Christ child's thumbs - it is in a similar position in the Prado version, just more clearly painted. On this point, there is a version of this work in Scotland that is attributed to Giulio Romano, known as the Novar Madonnna where the letters of the inscription are in a different position entirely, and the "V" in AGNVS has been omitted. An image can be viewed here link

Iconographically of course, the acceptance of the scroll inscribed 'Behold the Lamb of God' is indicative of Christ's willing acceptance of the passion, and related to the pensive appearance of the Virgin in this picture. I didn't want to get too sidetracked on this detail for this comparison, though will of course be mentioning it when I do my project entry for the Prado version.

Kind Regards

Roberto said...

Is not clear that the work of the Prado Museum was painted on canvas from the beginning and some restorers believe that support was originally the table and thereafter transferred to canvas in an unspecified time.
Regard to what you mentioned about the use of spolvero by the workshop, noting that in the restoration by Marco Catti of the Madonna del Cardellino (Rafaello certain work) to make a Infrared Reflectography of Rafaello's work was detected the use of the spolvero as a technique used by the master to transfer the cartoon disegno to the table.
I link you a link to an article in Spanish about Raffaello's works in Spain in which there is abundant information about Madonna della Rosa and copies of it made ​​in Spain from the sixteenth century (Sections I and II especially)
Excuse me by my english and thanks for the information

Unknown said...

Hello Roberto - thank you for your input. It seems there is an enduring controversy over the original support for the Prado version. I have included a translation of the Ruiz-Manero reference you have cited, as well as the statements on the topic by Meyer zur Capellen and Alonso.

I would like to see the results of a microscopic or imaging assessment that could verify presence of wood between or around the canvas layers. I wonder if such an assessment has been performed?

Many thanks for bringing this curious point to our attention!

Kind Regards

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