Thursday, December 6, 2012

Why Did It Sell For So Much? Raphael's Drawing Of A Head Of An Apostle

Head Of An Apostle, Raphael, (black chalk on paper) was in the private collection of Dukes of Devonshire since the 1700s and was just sold for a Sotheby's record $47.8 million dollars, significantly greater than the estimated pre-market value. Why did it sell for so much? Museums, such as the Vatican, don't let go of substantial pieces of their collection, because having art is always having money in the bank because their value almost never drops, but increases steadily. Masters such as Raphael were living paycheck to paycheck because it cost them so much to make their art (you couldn't just go to Michael's in those days and pick up a tube of paint, a canvas, a brush; supplies were usually specially ordered and expensive); not to mention that they were usually drinkers and wanted to live fashionably. Artists went through their incomes quickly, especially if they had assistants who had to be paid and work space rent. So artists tried to put out the big pieces as quickly as possible and not dally on small works (like the one above) but even then, due to political fights, love affairs and mood swings, it could take years for an artist to finish a painting like Transfiguration. It appears that the current Duke of Devonshire has decided to sell this work to care for the rest of his extensive collection.
Raphael's drawing of a male head was a preparatory sketch (called a "cartoon") for his masterpiece The Transfiguration, completed in 1520, the year of his death (probably finished by a student; painting pictured below). Why did it sell for so much? To begin with, drawings by Renaissance Old Masters are rare, very rare. Why? "They are so beautiful, they contain so much mastery of their craft and there is such a stately elegance about them," people say, especially when they see a calendar of Old Master drawings. Let me put it this way: calling an Old Master a genius because of the quality of their drawings is like calling someone who knows how to email a computer genius; drawing was just a basic skill, and I do mean basic: artists would attain certain economic and social levels during this time in history, but they were primarily considered to be craftsman and workman. Their finished pieces, the grand paintings and the great statues, were what they wanted people to remember, not their scribblings, so, when they were done with the sketches, they were usually thrown away,... but not this one.
So three considerations go into the enormous price: first, it's extremely rare, secondly, it was for an Old Master's masterpiece and, thirdly, it appears to be in impeccable condition. In spite of its age, it has been preserved in pristine condition (we can speculate that, if there were any damage, it might still have sold for this much; Sotheby's reports that four bidders were in a heated contest for the piece, so that's a bit of a crowd instead of just one or two eccentric collectors). But I would like to add a note on why this particular drawing is, indeed, breathtaking: it doesn't look anything like the rest of the painting.
The negative space of the paper is as much a part of the man's being as the lines of charcoal by Raphael. The style of mannerism was characterized by drama, twisting, expression and a general sense of "too much." Whereas the style of the Renaissance reminded man emerging from the Middle Ages of his dignity and intellect which could rule the world, mannerism took man into the artificial world of stylized facades and fashion; there are historical reasons for this, but we don't have time nor space here. Suffice to say, art historians tend to prefer the Renaissance to Mannerism, and so too just the general public. It's important for history to note that, in this cartoon, Raphael intuitively wanted to go with the "old style," but seemed to make a conscious effort to adapt the figures to the current mode of fashion for the finished piece.
Because the drawing was not an important work, Raphael sketches in the method he is familiar with, the style of Michelangelo, the strong, stable and calm approach to art which dominated the Renaissance under Michelangelo instead of the drama of mannerism which Transfiguration is done in. Look, if you will, at the back of the neck: there is the muscle in the movement of turning, the light casts an unusual shadow on the left-side of the face that darkens the half-closed eyes looking down. The figure knows he is dramatic just by being, he doesn't have to turn and point, expand his eyes or fall down as in the finished painting. This is the type of figure from Michelangelo's ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (example below). 
Sistine Ceiling, Michelangelo.