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Raphael's Small Cowper Madonna goes on view at the Worcester Art Museum
Raphael, Small Cowper Madonna, 1505. 60 cm x 44 cm.

WORCESTER, MASS.- The loan of Raphael’s Small Cowper Madonna from Washington’s National Gallery of Art from January 24 through September 27, 2015, provides a rare opportunity to study our own Northbrook Madonna and perhaps uncover the mystery of who painted it. Here Jon L. Seydl, director of curatorial affairs and curator of European Art interviews Raphael scholar Linda Wolk-Simon about the two works.

JLS: While I think everyone would agree that Raphael’s painting is incredibly beautiful, it might not be so obvious why this painting is so significant. What makes this painting so interesting and important?

LW-S: Raphael’s Small Cowper Madonna is striking for the way he endows a sacred subject with the gloss of reality. Portrayed as though they are ordinary beings, the holy figures share a tender, touching intimacy that makes them seem convincingly human: at first glimpse this appears to be a lovely young mother, lost in wistful reverie, holding a plump baby who clamors to stand in her lap. Adding to the impression that this is a believable, if idealized, tableau is the atmospheric landscape with gently rolling hills and graceful trees, bathed in a warm, enveloping light, that recedes into the distance. Rising on a hillock at the right is a handsome Renaissance church, San Bernardino, the burial place of the dukes of Urbino. This telling topographical detail indicates that Raphael must have painted the picture for someone in his native city rather than for a patron in Florence, where he worked for much of the time during the period when this work was created. The church is also a clue that, for all its engaging naturalism, this is a devotional image with a religious meaning. Conveyed in the Madonna’s expression of sad resignation is her foreknowledge of the future Passion and death that her infant son, Redeemer of mankind, will suffer.

JLS: The painting is known as The Small Cowper Madonna, something that would probably be very surprising to Raphael. Can you talk about why we use this name for the painting?

LW-S: Raphael would certainly be surprised to learn that his picture has come to be known as the Small Cowper Madonna (not the least because he did not speak English). Passing through the hands of a succession of collectors in the centuries after their creation, paintings often acquired the name of a later owner. In the nineteenth century, this and another Madonna and Child by Raphael now known as “The Large Cowper Madonna” were among the treasures of the art collection of Earl Cowper, a British aristocrat. It has been known ever since as “The Small Cowper Madonna.”

JLS: You’ve spent some time studying Worcester’s painting, which was once attributed to Raphael, and is now given to a much more open-ended Master of the Northbrook Madonna. What do you hope to learn from seeing WAM’s picture next to the National Gallery’s painting? To what should our visitors pay special attention when they compare the paintings?

LW-S: Some early scholars believed that the Northbrook Madonna was wholly or in part Raphael, a view that has not been upheld in more recent literature devoted to the artist. New information on the underdrawing beneath the paint layer of the Northbrook Madonna that modern, non-invasive technology allows us to see—hidden evidence that can be compared with the extensive underdrawing of the Small Cowper Madonna--will be of prime importance to this investigation of the Worcester Madonna’s authorship. Technical imaging aside, viewers should look closely and comparatively at the details—the typologies of the faces of the Madonna and Child, the complexity of their poses and the rhythm of the overall compositions, the facility with which form and volume are rendered and light and landscape described, the sense of emotional or psychological connection between the figures—or its lack—and ask themselves if they see the same confident mind and hand operating in both. We might also ponder whether Raphael could have designed the Worcester Art Museum’s picture but allowed someone else to paint part or all of it. If it’s not by Raphael, as scholars today maintain, we need to ask who among his close associates and artistic collaborators around the year 1505 might have executed this most Raphaelesque of works.

Linda Wolk-Simon, Ph.D., is an independent scholar and freelance curator specializing in 16th-18th century Italian art, with a particular focus on paintings and drawings by Raphael and the members of his workshop. She was a curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art for over 20 years, and more recently was Curator and Head of the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Morgan Library & Museum. She has published numerous essays and exhibition catalogues as well as articles and reviews in such journals as Apollo, Art Bulletin, Burlington Magazine, Master Drawings and Renaissance Quarterly. Her 2006 publication, Raphael at the Metropolitan: The Colonna Altarpiece, published by Yale University Press, was awarded “Outstanding Essay Focused on a Single Work of Art” by the Association of Art Museum Curators. Recent projects include an essay on the 16th-century Florentine sculptor Baccio Bandinelli for the catalogue of an exhibition of Italian Renaissance Sculptors’ Drawings at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (October 2014-January 2015) and the lead essay in a catalogue devoted to Raphael’s portrait of a young woman with a unicorn in the Borghese Gallery, Rome, for an exhibition in San Francisco and Cincinnati in 2015.

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