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Raphael (Urbino 1483-Rome 1520)

The Three Graces c.1517-18

Red chalk over some stylus underdrawing. Watermark of an anchor in a circle with a six-pointed star. | 20.3 x 25.8 cm, corners cut (sheet of paper) | RCIN 912754

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  • The drawing is a study for the group of the Graces sprinkling a libation over the married couple in the Wedding Feast of Cupid and Psyche, one of two large scenes frescoed in the vault of the garden loggia of Agostino Chigi's villa on the banks of the Tiber, now known as the Villa Farnesina. The two main fields (depicted as fictive ‘tapestries’) and their pendentives represent celestial episodes from the story of Psyche; other scenes in the lunettes were never executed, and the constant threat of flooding from the adjacent river seems to have precluded frescoes on the walls.

    The frescoes were painted entirely by Raphael’s assistants (to his designs), evident in a coarseness and inconsistency of effect that attracted negative comment from an early date. Passages in several of the pendentives are of notably higher quality than those in the crown of vault (which would have been painted first), suggesting that the master became aware of this lapse and took more control over the execution of the later passages. There is little evidence of the progress of the commission, and the most valuable document, ironically, is a letter from Leonardo Sellaio in Rome to Michelangelo in Florence opining that the frescoes were ‘a disgrace for a great artist.’ They were thus open to view when the letter was sent, but it is unclear whether its date of ‘1 January 1518’ was according to the Roman (ie. modern) calendar or the Florentine calendar, which would be 1519 modern style; the latter appears more likely, and in either case establishes that the frescoes, so far as they go, were finished by the end of 1518.

    The present study is from a single model in three consecutive poses, and corresponds with the fresco in all essentials except for the obscuring of the amphora by the wing of Cupid; and for the handling of light, which degenerates from clear and harmonious in the drawing to harsh and incoherent in the painting. It is one of very few studies for the project for which Raphael’s authorship has hardly ever been doubted, the artist fully in control of his medium, taking the drawing as far as necessary and no further, defining highlights simply by leaving areas of paper blank, and with a seemingly effortless understanding of bodily form. (The drawing was attributed by Frederick Hartt (Art Bulletin, 1944, pp. 67-94) to Gianfrancesco Penni, and by Oskar Fischel (Raphael, 1948, pp. 185, 366) to Giulio Romano, "with livening touches of Raphael's own hand." Popham (Popham and Wilde 1949, no. 804) implied that a lack of stylus underdrawing was an argument against Raphael's authorship; stylus underdrawing is however visible around most of the contours, most clearly along the back of the right-hand figure.)

    Several other of the red chalk studies for the project present perhaps the most difficult problem of attribution in the whole of Raphael's oeuvre, for there are both highly competent drawings by members of his studio and very good copies after lost originals. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the studies by Raphael’s assistants is that there seems to be no difference in function between these and the life studies attributable to Raphael himself – the master must have been involved in preparing at least some of the scenes at the most routine manual level. In expanding Raphael's role and attributing most of the red-chalk nude studies to Raphael himself, Konrad Oberhuber (‘Raphael’s drawings for the Loggia of Psyche in the Farnesina’ in Raffaello a Roma, 1986, pp. 189-207) dated a first group of studies to 1514-15 with a lacuna before a return to the project in 1517, thus accounting for the stylistic differences between drawings that are usually taken to be by different hands. This complicating theory is neither warranted by the documentation nor justified by the drawings.

    Several of the drawings for the Farnesina have suffered from having offsets taken (see an offset by Raphael at 912751). The effects of this can be seen here at upper right, where the chalk lines have been blurred by pressing against damp paper, and offsets from the drawing are to be found at Chatsworth (Jaffé 311) and in the Uffizi (1651-Ov). The Uffizi offset forms part of a sheet of studies produced in the studio of Perino del Vaga in the 1540s, suggesting that Perino was in possession of Raphael's drawing over twenty years after the master's death. Later in the sixteenth century Jacopo Strada claimed to have received from Perino's widow two boxes of drawings by both Perino and Raphael, which if true would imply that Perino did own a number of Raphael’s drawings (preface to Il settimo libro d'architettura di Sebastiano Serlio Bolognese..., Frankfurt-am-Main 1575).


    First recorded in George III's Inventory A (c.1810), p. 51, Raffaello d'Urbino e Scuola, '28. The Three Graces, Studys, in the Cupid & Psyche. Red Chalk'.

  • Medium and techniques

    Red chalk over some stylus underdrawing. Watermark of an anchor in a circle with a six-pointed star.


    20.3 x 25.8 cm, corners cut (sheet of paper)


    watermark: anchor in circle with six-pointed star