The ‘aesthetic thrill’ of Raphael

by charlestonattic

During museum week the Charleston Attic discussed the influence that Old Master paintings had upon Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, extending their knowledge of art history and providing inspiration for their own creative endeavours. Over the past few weeks the Angelica Garnett Gift has offered us further examples of this, with three exquisite studies after Raphael by Grant.

CHA-P-1299-R_CCHA-P-1300-R_CCHA-P-1306-R_C(top) CHA/P/1299. Duncan Grant, drawing, sketch after Raphael, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust (middle) CHA/P/1300. Duncan Grant, drawing, sketch after Raphael, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust (bottom) CHA/P/1306. Duncan Grant, drawing, sketch after Raphael, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

We know that Grant was an artist who explored many different means of expression from his work with the theatre to decorative schemes yet his portraits of friends and family are perhaps the most revealing. These studies of Raphael’s portraits demonstrates Grant’s sensitive handling of a subject which he employed in his own works. They also show us Grant’s appreciation and understanding of the importance of light, shadow and space, his Study for Composition (Self-Portrait in a Turban) of 1910 and 1916 Portrait of Vanessa Bell being excellent examples of his use of negative space.

db4b90f352265021d952cfdfb7377991Study for Composition (Self-portrait in a Turban), Duncan Grant, 1910. Photograph  © WordPress

Correspondence, personal diaries and recollections from friends of the Bloomsbury group have shown us that Grant and Bell travelled frequently, to experience new landscapes, lifestyles and study works by other artists. A letter from Grant to Bell tells us of his experience seeing the Sistine Madonna by Raphael for the first time;

 ‘I have seen the Sistine Madonna. I couldn’t help thinking it might be one of the greatest aesthetic thrills as I dashed round the gallery – really rather nervous of finding it… I must say I was very much impressed – tho a good deal I suspect at first was the extraordinary prestige the picture has. But I sat and looked at it for some time and I thought it extraordinarily fine and so much more perfect than I had ever expected but it really was very thrilling – I had never known quite what to make of it before.’

                       Duncan Grant to Vanessa Bell 22nd June 1924

This letter, which is quoted in Simon Watney’s book ‘The Art of Duncan Grant,’ is thought to be the most detailed surviving account of, and response to a single work of art by the artist. The influence of Old Master paintings can be seen to play an important role in Grant’s approach to his art throughout his career. In addition to his careful consideration of forms and handling of colour and light, various motifs from works such as Raphael’s repeatedly appear in paintings, sketches and prints. The hanged curtains that we see adorning the upper corners of the Sistine Madonna are a frequent feature in Grant’s work, for example the painting Venus and Adonis which is now part of the Tate’s collections and a painted panel for the Lefevre Gallery, at Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries.

Venus and Adonis, Duncan Grant, 1919. Photograph  ©  BBC Paintings