March 28 – Happy Birthday, Raphael

Posted on March 28, 2018

There are only a few European Renaissance artists more famous than today's birthday honoree (Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci come to mind!). Raphael is so famous, his name is used for one of the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

Actually, I read that Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael are considered the "trinity of great masters."

Sadly, Raphael died at only age 37 - yet he was so prolific, he left us with a LOT of works - paintings, mostly, including frescoes on various walls of the Vatican Palace. He also did some architecture, drawing, and printmaking.

Raphael was born on this date in 1483, in the Duchy of Urbino (today a part of Italy). 

His father was a court painter to the Duke of Urbino - and Raphael grew up helping out in his father's workshop.

You see, back then, successful painters would run workshops and take on pupils or apprentices. They fed and housed the young artists - generally the parents of the youngsters would pay the master artist for this room-and-board - and they not only trained the young artists, they also paid them. Of course, as the young people got older and more skillful, they were paid more and more. 

The artists-in-training would start with tasks like preparing panels and grinding up materials to use as pigments for paint. They learned to draw by copying the drawings or paintings of their own masters and, usually, of other artists. The young apprentice-artists would travel with their master, when possible, to see more of the world, more art, and to thus increase their "visual education."

The next step for the young artists was to draw from statues and casts of statues. After mastering the conversion of non-moving 3-D objects into 2-D drawings, the pupils move onto drawing from live modes. 

Finally, artists-in-training would begin to paint. Once they demonstrated facility with painting, they would begin to paint in backgrounds and less-important parts of their masters' paintings. They would eventually paint more and more important parts of commissioned pieces. 

The result of this workshop-apprenticeship system is that a master artist's works are always collaborations of many artists, mostly younger and less capable artists. A master artist might paint only a few central figures. Or just the faces of a few central figures. Or...or nothing at all!

Modern painter Thomas Kinkade
was said to have many other artists
work on creating "his" paintings -
and then he'd add a stroke or
two of the brush and call it an

I'm not sure if these stories are true...
Sometimes an entire work is painted by the artist's workshop of artists-in-training, based on his sketches - but with not a single stroke being painted by the master himself! His signature on the piece didn't mean that he painted in entirely - or even at all - himself, but it WAS supposed to mean that it met his standards of quality.

Raphael started in his father's workshop, as I mentioned, but he was orphaned by the time he was 11 years old, so he went to work in the workshop of Perugino. 

(The history is unclear - he may have apprenticed with Perugino earlier, while his father was still alive.)

Of course, eventually Raphael was considered a master, and he ran his own workshop. Art historians admit that the pieces that came out of his workshop were not up to the quality of the pieces he painted himself as a young, not-yet-fully-established artist.

Check out the Garden of Praise Raphael page for some puzzles and activities.

By the way, according to long-ago art historian Giorgio Vasari, Raphael was born on a Good Friday (March 28, 1483) AND died on a Good Friday (April 6, 1520). The latter date is well established, but scholars aren't totally sure about the first one. So it may be that this is NOT Raphael's birthday! He might have been born, for example, on April 6, 1483. There's not enough evidence to know....

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