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Real Masters

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Raphael -- or to give him his full name, Raffaello di Giovanni Santi (1483-1520) -- was one of those painters who could do it all: draw superbly, use color expertly, arrange his subjects skillfully, and apply paint so as to extend its reach as a medium of expression. On top of everything else, he satisfied his customers and attracted patrons, including Pope Julius II. As Tom Henry and Carol Plazzotta put it in Raphael: From Urbino to Rome (National Gallery/Yale Univ.; paperback, $45), which they co-wrote with Hugo Chapman, he was "a great perfectionist and the execution of his pictures depended on a meticulous process of serial refinement through preparatory drawings, leading up to the production of near perfect cartoons." "Cartoons" is undoubtedly meant in the old-fashioned sense of "drawings," but it also suggests a connection others have made: Walt Disney and his craftsmen used Raphael as one of their models for the smooth brilliance of their animated images. This volume reproduces not just Raphael's paintings but also several of those way stations to completion, sometimes on facing pages so the reader can see how a sketch evolved into a gleaming rectangle of magnificence. One of the paintings considered to be a self-portrait (there is some uncertainty about all of them) looks like Raphael as one likes to imagine him: thoughtful, refined, bearing an innate grace, a bit ethereal.

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As if the challenge of capturing what you see weren't enough, Gloria Groom and Douglas Druick remind us that logistical problems can add to a painting's degree of difficulty. Commenting on Claude Monet's "Charing Cross Bridge, London" in The Age of Impressionism at the Art Institute of Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago/Yale Univ.; paperback, $40), the co-authors note the painter's enthusiasm about expressing "sunlight seen through a dense screen of mist, fog, and steam." But when Monet traveled to England to do so, frustration set in; he found that on Sundays "reduced trains and closed factories altered the dense atmospheric effects he sought." Similarly, when he was in Norway, he fretted that a thaw would wreak havoc with his "snowy motifs." A painting by another artist, Henri-Edmond Cross's "Beach at Cabasson," suggests a different problem encountered by impressionists: woodenheaded critics. Cross embraced the "divided brushwork and color gradations" usually associated with the pointillist Georges Seurat, only to have one reviewer complain that his style "irritates the eye."

-- Dennis Drabelle


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