New Raphael acquisition at Staedel

December 13 2011

Image of New Raphael acquisition at Staedel

Picture: Staedel Museum, Frankfurt, [called] Raphael & Workshop, 'Portrait of Pope Julius II', 1511/12, Oil on poplar panel, 105.6 x 78.5cm.

The Staedel Museum in Frankfurt has acquired what it says is a newly discovered version of Raphael's portrait of Pope Julius II. The original is in the National Gallery, London. The Staedel says their new version is painted by Raphael and his workshop. Full details available in the press release here.

Key to their conclusions are the apparent changes visible in the picture, as revealed in the x-rays and infra-red photographs: [more below]

The version of the portrait of Julius II acquired by the Städel is captivating by virtue of its outstanding artistic quality. However, it also possesses another exceptional feature, and one which distinguishes it from the two versions known to date – those belonging to the National Gallery in London and the Uffizi in Florence. It exhibits extensive creative changes which were carried out in the course of the painting’s execution and can be made visible with the aid of such technologies as infrared reflectography and x-ray. The exceedingly free underdrawing, for example, executed with a brush as a preliminary stage in the work’s composition, shows the armchair in a position slightly different from that of the final solution. The acorns decorating the finials and alluding to the family crest of the della Rovere pope are entirely absent from the initial pictorial conception. Even the underdrawing of the pope’s face differs in important respects from the painted version, for instance in the rendering of the nose as well as the mouth, whose corners were drawn down much further in the underdrawing than in the finished product. Yet whereas the above-described areas were already corrected at the start of the painting process, the artist evidently did not arrive at the final position of the pope’s right hand until that process was well underway. For according to the x-ray image, it was apparently first raised in front of his body in a gesture of blessing. It will thus initially have corresponded to the portrait appearing in the frescoes executed by Raphael in the Stanza della Segnatura in the same period, and casting the della Rovere pope in the role of Gregory IX presenting the decretals.

“All of these observations”, explains Prof Dr Jochen Sander, “assign the Städel work a key position within the process of this important compositional invention, in which Raphael himself and presumably also his workshop were involved.” The precision and rigour applied to the execution of the pope’s exceedingly lifelike facial features and hands contrast conspicuously with the simple rendering of the rochet – the white garment – and the background. What is more, the meticulousness with which the pope’s rings were “staged”, as it were, far surpasses their rather perfunctory treatment in the other two known versions. The employment of real gold for the elaborate representation of the rings’ settings and the fine fringes of the armchair decorations likewise points as much to the exceptional artistic standards cultivated by the painting’s author as to the fastidious expectations of his client.

I haven't seen the painting, but I'm going to stick my neck out here - from the photos does the attribution seem, well, a little optimistic? I know art dealers and art historians alike love to point to 'changes' as evidence of the artists initial creative input. But I'm afraid to say that often such changes are simply evidence of a copyist getting things wrong, and then re-working his mistake. I have seen plenty of poor copies with apparent 'pentiments'. This relatively new theory that all these changes indicate the master's involvement is (sometimes) a bit of a con. It would be helpful if the x-ray was made available for study as well as the infra-red images. 

The point in this Staedel example is surely one of overall skill and quality - how could Raphael allow something so awkwardly painted to leave his workshop, if he had played a part in its execution himself? I know this can be a subjective argument, and hard to quantify - you either like the way something is painted or you don't. But let's look at the hands, just to take one area, which are very badly drawn. Compare for yourself the hands in the original here. Are the Staedel picture's hands really by Raphael? Would Raphael have left the hands to a studio assistant?

Still, it may be condition which is making the picture look a little unsatisfactory - so I must reserve judgement till I see the painting itself. That said, the poor quality in parts, such as the hands, is even evident in the infra-red drawing. Normally, exquisite under-drawing is one of the hallmarks of a Raphael, even a workshop piece. But here it looks like something from an etcha-sketch. 


Update: for a far better analysis of the new picture and its place in the Raphael/Pope Julius ouevre, click over to

Here are some more images, courtesy of the Staedel Museum:

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