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Raphael

born 6 April 1483 - died 1520

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Raphael Sanzio, usually known by his first name alone (in Italian Raffaello) (April 6 or March 28, 1483 - April 6, 1520) was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance, celebrated for the perfection and grace of his paintings and drawings. Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci he forms the traditional trinity of great masters of that period.

Raphael was enormously productive and, despite his early death at thirty-seven, a large body of his work remains, especially in the Vatican. He was extremely influential in his lifetime, but after his death the influence of his great rival Michelangelo was more widespread until the 18th and 19th centuries, when his more serene and harmonious qualities were again regarded as the highest models.

His career falls naturally into three phases and three styles, first described by Giorgio Vasari: his early years in Umbria, then a period of about four years (from 1504-1508) absorbing the artistic traditions of Florence, followed by his last hectic and triumphant twelve years in Rome, working for two Popes and their close associates.

In 1491, his mother Magia died, followed by his father (who had already remarried) on August 1, 1494. Orphaned at eleven, Raphael's formal guardian became his only paternal uncle Bartolomeo, a priest, who subsequently engaged in litigation with his stepmother. He probably continued to live with his stepmother when not living as an apprentice with a master. He had already shown talent, according to Giorgio Vasari, who tells that Raphael had been "a great help to his father". A brilliant self-portrait drawing from his teenage years shows his precocious talent. His father's workshop continued and, probably together with his stepmother, Raphael evidently played a part in managing it from a very early age. In Urbino, he came into contact with the works of Paolo Uccello, previously the court painter (d. 1475), and Luca Signorelli, who until 1498 was based in nearby Citta di Castello.

According to Vasari, his father placed him in the workshop of the Umbrian master Pietro Perugino as an apprentice "despite the tears of his mother". The evidence of an apprenticeship comes only from Vasari and another source, and has been disputed-his mother died when he was eight, which is very early for an apprenticeship to begin. An alternative theory is that he received at least some training from Timoteo Viti, who acted as court painter in Urbino from 1495. But most modern historians agree that Raphael at least worked as an assistant to Perugino from around 1500; the influence of Perugino on Raphael's early work is very clear: "probably no other pupil of genius has ever absorbed so much of his master's teaching as Raphael did", according to Wolfflin. Vasari wrote that it was impossible to distinguish their hands at this period, but many modern art historians claim to do better and detect his hand in specific areas of works by Perugino or his workshop. Apart from stylistic closeness, their techniques are very similar as well, for example having paint applied thickly, using an oil varnish medium, in shadows and darker garments, but very thinly on flesh areas. An excess of resin in the varnish often causes cracking of areas of paint in the works of both masters. The Perugino workshop was active in both Perugia and Florence, perhaps maintaining two permanent branches. Raphael is described as a "master", that is to say fully trained, in 1501.

His first documented work was the Baronci altarpiece for the church of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino in Citta di Castello, a town halfway between Perugia and Urbino. Evangelista da Pian di Meleto, who had worked for his father, was also named in the commission. It was commissioned in 1500 and finished in 1501; now only some cut sections and a preparatory drawing remain.In the following years he painted works for other churches there, including the "Mond Crucifixion" (about 1503) and the Brera Wedding of the Virgin (1504), and for Perugia, such as the Oddi Altarpiece. He very probably also visited Florence in this period. These are large works, some in fresco, where Raphael confidently marshalls his compositions in the somewhat static style of Perugino. He also painted many small and exquisite cabinet paintings in these years, probably mostly for the connoisseurs in the Urbino court, like the Three Graces and St. Michael, and he began to paint Madonnas and portraits. In 1502 he went to Siena at the invitation of another pupil of Perugino, Pinturicchio, "being a friend of Raphael and knowing him to be a draughtsman of the highest quality" to help with the cartoons, and very likely the designs, for a fresco series in the Piccolomini Library in Siena Cathedral. He was evidently already much in demand even at this early stage in his career.

Raphael lived in the Borgo, in rather grand style in a palace designed by Bramante. He never married, but in 1514 became engaged to Maria Bibbiena, Cardinal Medici Bibbiena's niece; he seems to have been talked into this by his friend the Cardinal, and his lack of enthusiasm seems to be shown by the marriage not taking place before she died in 1520. He is said to have had many affairs, but a permanent fixture in his life in Rome was La Fornarina, Margherita Luti, the daughter of a baker (fornaro) named Francesco Luti from Siena who lived at Via del Governo Vecchio. He was made a "Groom of the Chamber" of the Pope, which gave him status at court and an additional income. Vasari claims he had toyed with the ambition of becoming a Cardinal, perhaps after some encouragement from Leo, which also may account for his delaying his marriage.

According to Vasari, Raphael's premature death on Good Friday (April 6, 1520) (possibly his 37th birthday), was caused by a night of excessive sex with her, after which he fell into a fever and, not telling his doctors that this was its cause, was given the wrong cure, which killed him. Whatever the cause, in his acute illness, which lasted fifteen days, Raphael was composed enough to receive the last rites, and to put his affairs in order. He dictated his will, in which he left sufficient funds for his mistress's care, entrusted to his loyal servant Baviera, and left most of his studio contents to Giulio Romano and Penni. At his request, Raphael was buried in the Pantheon.

Vasari, in his biography of Raphael, says that Raphael was also born on a Good Friday, which in 1483 fell on March 28. This would mean that while Raphael was born and died on Good Friday, he was actually older than 37 on the 1520 Good Friday which fell on April 6. His funeral was extremely grand, attended by large crowds. The inscription in his marble sarcophagus, an elegiac distich written by Pietro Bembo, reads: "Ille hic est Raffael, timuit quo sospite vinci, rerum magna parens et moriente mori." Meaning: "Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die."

Raphael was highly admired by his contemporaries, although his influence on artistic style in his own century was less than that of Michelangelo. Mannerism, beginning at the time of his death, and later the Baroque, took art "in a direction totally opposed" to Raphael's qualities; "with Raphael's death, classic art - the High Renaissance - subsided", as Walter Friedlander put it. He was soon seen as the ideal model by those disliking the excesses of Mannerism:
the opinion ...was generally held in the middle of the sixteenth century that Raphael was the ideal balanced painter, universal in his talent, satisfying all the absolute standards, and obeying all the rules which were supposed to govern the arts, whereas Michelangelo was the eccentric genius, more brilliant than any other artists in his particular field, the drawing of the male nude, but unbalanced and lacking in certain qualities, such as grace and restraint, essential to the great artist. Those, like Dolce and Aretino, who held this view were usually the survivors of Renaissance Humanism, unable to follow Michelangelo as he moved on into Mannerism.

Vasari himself, despite his hero remaining Michelangelo, came to see his influence as harmful in some ways, and added passages to the second edition of the Lives expressing similar views. Raphael's compositions were always admired and studied, and became the cornerstone of the training of the Academies of art. His period of greatest influence was from the late 17th to late 19th centuries, when his perfect decorum and balance were greatly admired. He was seen as the best model for the history painting, regarded as the highest in the hierarchy of genres. Sir Joshua Reynolds in his Discourses praised his "simple, grave, and majestic dignity" and said he "stands in general foremost of the first [ie best] painters", especially for his frescoes (in which he included the "Raphael Cartoons"), whereas "Michael Angelo claims the next attention. He did not possess so many excellences as Raffaelle, but those he had were of the highest kind..." Echoing the sixteenth-century views above, Reynolds goes on to say of Raphael:

The excellency of this extraordinary man lay in the propriety, beauty, and majesty of his characters, his judicious contrivance of his composition, correctness of drawing, purity of taste, and the skilful accommodation of other men’s conceptions to his own purpose. Nobody excelled him in that judgment, with which he united to his own observations on nature the energy of Michael Angelo, and the beauty and simplicity of the antique. To the question, therefore, which ought to hold the first rank, Raffaelle or Michael Angelo, it must be answered, that if it is to be given to him who possessed a greater combination of the higher qualities of the art than any other man, there is no doubt but Raffaelle is the first. But if, according to Longinus, the sublime, being the highest excellence that human composition can attain to, abundantly compensates the absence of every other beauty, and atones for all other deficiencies, then Michael Angelo demands the preference.

Reynolds was less enthusiastic about Raphael's panel paintings, but the slight sentimentality of these made them enormously popular in the 19th century:"We have been familiar with them from childhood onwards, through a far greater mass of reproductions than any other artist in the world has ever had..." wrote Wolfflin, who was born in 1862, of Raphael's Madonnas.

In 19th century England the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood explicitly reacted against hiso influence (and that of his admirers such as "Sir Sploshua"), seeking to return to styles before what they saw as his baneful influence. According to John Ruskin:

The doom of the arts of Europe went forth from that chambe, and it was brought about in great part by the very excellencies of the man who had thus marked the commencement of decline. The perfection of execution and the beauty of feature which were attained in his works, and in those of his great contemporaries, rendered finish of execution and beauty of form the chief objects of all artists; and thenceforward execution was looked for rather than thought, and beauty rather than veracity.

And as I told you, these are the two secondary causes of the decline of art; the first being the loss of moral purpose. Pray note them clearly. In mediæval art, thought is the first thing, execution the second; in modern art execution is the first thing, and thought the second. And again, in mediaval art, truth is first, beauty second; in modern art, beauty is first, truth second. The mediaval principles led up to Raphael, and the modern principles lead down from him.

He was still seen by 20th century critics like Bernard Berenson as the "most famous and most loved" master of the High Renaissance, but it would seem he has since been overtaken by Michelangelo and Leonardo in this respect.



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Complete list of Raphael’s oil paintings