John Adams said he wouldn't pay a sixpence for a Raphael, although Thomas Jefferson was a fan ahead of his time.
J. Pierpont Morgan didn't do as well with Raphaels as with banking. He owned one genuine early altarpiece, one possible fake and one copy.
In honor of Raphael's 500th birthday, the National Gallery of Art opens a loan exhibition Sunday that gives equal attention to the Renaissance master's prestige and his creativity. It documents his collectors as well as his art, hangs paintings he inspired beside the real items, leaves the adulation of the "Prince of Painters" to the past and treats him merely as a gifted mortal. Read the pithy labels, see the 15-minute film and the complex subject becomes clear.
Triple-views bring his works into focus: on film (where the works are seen in such settings as Monticello and the Morgan Library), in reproductions and in the flesh.
Raphael's prestige in America is chronicled from the sublime to the ridiculous -- from sincere imitators to such parodies as piglets posed as cherubs. His narrative compositions became models for John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West (called the American Raphael).
His Madonnas were even more the rage for later artists, particularly his "Madonna of the Chair," the Mona Lisa of its day. The clamor for this picture reached such proportions that one 19th-century American painter complained there was a two-year wait before the painting was available for copying. One such copy is on view here.
The exhibit details, chronologically, how American millionaires of the late 1800s spent their fortunes on Old Masters. The copies, imitations and fakes provide high drama. The plot turns on collecting copies versus the search for originals.
The show fuels controversies over different versions of some works. In the case of "Madonna of the Candelabra," the copy is hung next to the original by "Raphael and Workshop" -- an opportunity for comparison that art historians drool over. Four preparatory drawings for "Saint George and the Dragon" are shown with the final work, for the first time since they left the artist's studio. And case studies of his method suggest which touches Raphael picked up from Leonardo.
"For a scholar, this is a dream to be able to get these loans," says curator David Brown. For the casual viewer, it's a feast.
Even without the borrowed works, this part of the world is rich in Raphaels. Of 13 originals in the United States, five are owned by the National Gallery, one by the Baltimore Museum of Art and one by the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. "RAPHAEL AND AMERICA" -- At the National Gallery of Art East Building, opens Sunday, continuing through May 8.