Medium: Oil On Canvas
Size: 39.2 x 30 cm
Paris, Private Collection, 1996; New York, Private Collection.
This piece encapsulates a moment in which Michelangelo, Raphael and the architect Bramante were all working at the Vatican, during the early years of the sixteenth century under the papacy of Julius II. Nostalgia for the great artistic epochs of the past was a notable aspect of nineteenth-century historicism. In early 1509 Raphael had begun painting the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, and Michelangelo had begun the Sistine ceiling. The Pope had also commissioned a major new plan for St. Peter’s from Bramante. These concurrent projects epitomizing the High Renaissance are all alluded to in Vernet’s composition.
The 1833 Salon livret, describing the finished painting for which this is a sketch, offers the psychological background for the scene: “Michelangelo meeting Raphael in the Vatican says to him, ‘You walk surrounded by an entourage like a general.’ ‘And you,’ responds Raphael, ‘you walk alone like an executioner.'” This preliminary sketch differs from both the oil on paper sketch and the finished painting. The younger Raphael is sketching a peasant woman and her baby, to be transformed into a Madonna and child for which he was famous. The bearded Michelangelo, placed lower left holding a sketchbook, brushes, a figural sculpture,and sword and keys (presumably to the Sistine Chapel where he was working in secret on the ceiling) in the finished work is here shown upper left, striding off looking back over his shoulder. Pope Julius II, who appears upper left shaded by an umbrella and observing the encounter while being shown Bramante’s plan for St. Peter’s, is only sketched in upper right here. The courtyard is filled with the blocks of marble, mentioned in eyewitness accounts, that Michelangelo had excavated for his work on Julius’ tomb but barely outlined here.
Vernet had painted a similar, though more formal, subject in 1827 – Julius II Ordering Work on the Vatican. This was commissioned by the Restoration government for a ceiling of the Musée Charles X in the Louvre, where it is still on view. Louis-Philippe, who became King in 1830, continued his predecessor’s ambitious patronage program celebrating French history and cultural heritage. It is not surprising, therefore, that he purchased the Salon version of Vernet’s Raphael at the Vatican, which like many other “lives of the artists” pictures celebrates not only artistic achievement, but also the crucial role of the patron. Vernet was highly favored by Louis-Philippe, and in the 1830s and ’40s his painting style was criticized for demonstrating “middle of the road” qualities deemed comparable to Louis-Phillipe’s politics — that is, his paintings seemed styleless, most notably in contrast to his contemporary, Delacroix. In an oil sketch, such as this, that quality of artistic distancing has not yet intruded between the painter and viewer, and there remains the more vibrant brushwork and color and compositional immediacy of an initial creative artistic expression.