A female sitter in the Czartoryski Raphael?

October 23, 2012

Oskar Fischel on the Czartoryski Raphael 
by Dr. Francis P. DeStefano

A recent post at 3PP presented a very comprehensive study of the attribution and provenance history of a famed Portrait of a Young Man, usually attributed to Raphael. The painting was one of those looted from the Czartoryski collection in Poland by the Nazis during WWII and has still not been recovered.

Scholars have tried to identify the sitter as a young man, either real or idealized. Some have even suggested a Raphael self-portrait. However Oskar Fischel, a renowned Austrian born  scholar had claimed that the sitter was a young woman. Fischel's view struck a chord with me for on first glance the sitter appeared to me to be a woman of a particular kind.

The painting reminded me of Giorgione’s Portrait of a Young Woman or Laura where a young woman in a state of undress is partially covered with a man’s robe. Scholars of Venetian art have noted that both the disheveled look and the man’s robe indicate a courtesan. In Giorgione, Myth and Enigma, the catalog of the 2004 Giorgione exhibition, the entry for Giorgione’s Laura noted the following.
According to Junkermann (1993) she is wearing a male garment, which far from being a reference to marriage, instead indicates that the model has adopted a typical male role, perhaps that of a poet; but that does not exclude that she may also be a courtesan. Her sumptuous fur-lined red garment is, more than an item of male attire, the winter dress of Venetian women of pleasure.

Giorgione's Laura. A fur lined gown as an allusion to a courtesan. Since ancient Roman times the term Lupae (she-wolves) has been used to describe prostitutes (See Mazzoni) -ed.

My first impression led me to take a look through other Raphael portraits of men and women. Men’s foreheads are usually covered with a cap that sits firmly on top of the head and not worn at the same rakish angle as in the lost painting. Raphael’s women, even Madonnas, inevitably have their foreheads exposed with hair neatly parted in the middle.

The portraits of Agnolo Doni and Maddalena Strozzi provide a striking example of hair fashion around 1505-6. The man’s forehead is covered with his cap firmly on top of his head. The woman’s long hair is parted neatly in the middle and her hair is covered with a diaphanous veil.

Things are much the same ten years later if we compare the Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione with La Donna Velata. Castiglione’s cap is firmly atop his head and completely covers his forehead. The donna’s forehead is uncovered with long hair parted neatly in the middle. The back of her head is covered with a long white veil. Even the famous La Fornarina has hair neatly parted in the middle but with her hair tied back with a scarf.

It is true that most of Raphael’s woman have hair well done up and combed, but in the case of the Czartoryki portrait, it can be perhaps argued that Raphael is depicting a courtesan posing in her lover’s clothing. It looks like she’s sitting in her shift with a man’s robe casually thrown over her shoulder, and a man’s cap pinned to the back of her head, to indicate an intimate bond, in a somewhat less obvious way than Raphael did in La Fornarina, with the inscribed armlet.

Oskar Fischel’s two-volume study of Raphael represented the culmination of a lifetime devoted to the rehabilitation of Raphael. His study of Raphael was translated and published in London in 1948 with the first volume containing text, and the second prints.

The publisher of the  landmark 1948 volume describes Fischel's scholarly dedication to Raphael:
Oscar Fischel contends that Raphael has been misrepresented in the same manner as Mozart. His natural grace and the apparent ease and fluency with which his work was accomplished have led to the charge that he was lacking in deeper understanding. The author is at pains to refute these criticisms. He reveals to us not the superficial, sentimental, pious and graceful artist, but a true poet and creator, interpreting the fundamental and essential meaning of life.
Fischel devoted only half a page to the Czartoryski painting discussing it after the more famous La Donna Velata. Fischel's discussion of the Czartoryski portrait makes specific reference to La Donna.
The Donna Velata of the Pitti Palace is the result of a commission of his very own, in the midst of the great frescoes and orders for altarpieces; it is a love-prompted improvisation on the most charming of themes—the innocence and womanly dignity of a young Roman woman of the people. The colour echoes this harmony of character….(p. 123)

We know that the master found the purity of her young features, with the dark, beaming charm of her look, worthy of the otherworldly revelation of the Sistine Madonna. Years ago it was supposed that her still dazzling features, although quickly coarsened, might be recognized in the picture in the Czartoryski Gallery at Cracow. Once there was a much-disputed idea that it might be a self-portrait of Raphael, also that it perhaps represented the Duke of Urbino, or, finally, the Fornarina. Sebastiano del Piombo was mentioned as its painter, as so were as many other artists as there were experts who stood in front of the picture when it was at Dresden during the last war.
Fischel must have been among those experts who saw the painting in person while it was in Dresden. He saw a young woman.
...the hair with its locks reluctantly breaking loose on the temples, and the deep-cut thumbs, warrant the conclusion that it is a woman who is here represented; also the secret of the bosom is rather betrayed than guarded by the fur cloak, not put on, but thrown as if on the spur of the moment over the shirt. This negligee has a poetic significance only if it is a woman who is in question. The right forearm seems to rest on the bottom of a lute. The white of the chemise, the gold and brown of the gown with its fur collar, the greenish-golden cover on the table, form with the gleaming flesh-tones, a boldly conceived harmony, gorgeous to a degree, which is gathered together within the grand, free form of the silhouette. The painting can be compared for triumphant power with the group of the Pope in the Attila; like this fresco, it is of inestimable value as the last evidence quite incontestably from Raphael’s own hand of his most personal chromatic expression. (125)
Like the Czartoryski painting Fischel was also a casualty of the Nazis in  1933 when he was dismissed from his post at the University of Berlin by the new Hitler regime. Student protests forced his reinstatement but he was finally dismissed in 1935. Apparently, museum officials in London were successful in bringing him to London where he died in 1939.

Editor's note
Barring any new evidence coming to light, Fischel's interpretation of the sitter as a woman is likely to remain part of the rich tapestry of readings offered for this work throughout history. What do readers think - is it Raphael, or another anonymous man or woman? -ed.

Fischel, O. Raphael. Translated from the German by Bernard Rackham, Volume I.  London, 1948.

Mazzoni, C. She-Wolf: The Story of a Roman Icon. Cambridge University Press. 2010. pp.117-126

Dr. Francis P. DeStefano is a retired assistant professor of history, who now dedicates his time to writing and lecturing independently on history and art history. His key area of interest is Venetian Renaissance art, particularly the works of Giorgione. His ongoing research into historical and sacred themes influencing artists in the Renaissance can be read at Giorgione et al, and its parent site Tempesta News.


Anonymous said...

This picture has so many enigmas! With the absence of the actual object and a no direct documents related to the patron or artist, we are left to make brave guesses based on what we know of the artist's life and social circle.

I am curious to know if we have any other confirmed images of a Roman courtesan - one would think a picture such as 'La Fornarina' or Giulio Romano's 'Woman with a Mirror' more closely resemble this type of portrait in a Roman context.

Thank you to Dr DeStefano, and 3PP for hosting this intriguing post!

Stephanie S

Bun in a Twist said...

It may well be a woman sitter but whoever it is certainly is a dead ringer for actor Paul Dano http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0200452/

Debrina said...

Who is to say that this is not a hint at Raphael's own proclivities? The sexual ambiguity could be alluding more to his own sexual orientation than someone elses? The baring of a breast would have settled the matter. La Fornarina comes to mind here. But this is where my lack of knowledge on the the symbolism employed in High Renaissance art fails me.

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@Stephanie - well stated - one would imagine a courtesan portrait, intended for very private chambers to look more like La Fornarina or the wonderful Giulio example you cite. If anything perhaps, it makes us appreciate the Czartoryski picture further - what is about exactly? Some commentators seem to think it not a portrait at all.

@Bun in a Twist - there is some resemblance, I wonder if Mr Dano has a early modern ancestor in Rome ;)

@Debrina - interesting point. Unlike Leonardo and Michelangelo, we don't get a sense of any homosexual proclivity from primary sources or biographies of Raphael. In fact his sexual excess and fondness for women is cited by Vasari as the reason for the illness which caused his premature death in 1520. That being said, were he predisposed to this type of activity, it would hardly be something that would be widely documented, so we may never know for certain.

Many Kind Regards

Anonymous said...


This image, to me, has characteristics of both male and female.

Cover up the mouth and below...and the eyes, nose and the rest appear to me to be more male.

Cover up the nose and above... now the mouth, chin and hair appear to be more female.

I do wish that some day this painting does see the light of day again! I would like to get a look at x-ray, uv or infrared images of it.

Jeff H.

Dr. F said...


The bottom portion of the face taken in isolation does appear unmistakably feminine. I don't think the upper portion is that clear cut. In my case I initially saw a woman and the hair-style and clothing only verified my initial impression. Reading Fischel, I then discovered that he had seen much more than I had.


Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...