The paintings of Botticelli (circa 1445–1510) are ingrained in public consciousness: They have influenced popular culture by inspiring artists, fashion designers, dance, film, and music. His paintings are a big draw when exhibited in museums or on the auction block; in early 2021, a small Botticelli portrait, considered the finest remaining in private hands, sold at Sotheby’s for a record $92.2 million. There is, however, more to study and discover about the artist.
A Master Draftsman
“Botticelli Drawings” is the first show ever dedicated to the 15th-century artist’s drawings. It gathers together from 42 lending institutions the majority of his surviving graphic works and places them within the context of his paintings. Nearly 60 works will be on view and 27 of them will be drawings. The exhibit’s overarching theme is that the artist’s great draftsmanship was integral to the creation of his paintings and artistic expression.
It is rare for Renaissance drawings to survive. Reasons include the inherent fragility of paper and the lack of critical esteem for drawings as art compared to paintings and sculpture. Fewer than three dozen drawings confirmed to be by Botticelli are known today.
A further complication accounting for the scarcity of known Botticelli drawings is his unusual stylistic progression, more marked in his drawings than paintings, which makes it difficult for scholars to assign authorship.
“Botticelli Drawings” will showcase five newly attributed drawings as per the research of Furio Rinaldi, curator of prints and drawings at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. His findings are based on technical and stylistic analysis, as well as comparison with Botticelli’s paintings. One of the new attributions is a preparatory drawing for The Louvre’s panel “The Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist.” Both the drawing and painting will be on display.
Botticelli's Stylized ArtistryThe son of a tanner, Botticelli was born in Florence. His precocious artistic talent was recognized at an early age, and he soon began to train as an apprentice, likely beginning in the workshop of a goldsmith before studying with noted artists through whom he made advantageous connections. Botticelli incorporated lessons from all of his teachers and by his mid-20s he had his own workshop. For much of his career, he was popular and prosperous.
Botticelli was exceedingly skillful in the technique of tempera paint, a medium in which dry pigments are bound in an adhesive oil-in-water emulsion, such as oil and a whole egg, or a water-soluble mixture, such as water and egg yolk. Botticelli favored tempera as it was a quick-drying medium. Determined to capture beauty, harmony, and perfection, tempera made it possible for his painted figures to appear luminous and opaque.
His distinctive style is marked by strong contours, decorative lines, transparent flowing drapery, lush ornamental flourishes, harmonious compositions, and sinuous figures in graceful poses.
Characteristic subjects include complex mythological iconography, elegant Madonna and Child pictures (“Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Six Singing Angels” is a beautiful example in the show), and portraiture that pleased his patrons (he was highly prolific in this genre). One of Botticelli’s practices was drawing from life, which became customary in Renaissance Florence and beyond.
Botticelli had his most creative period from 1478 to 1490. During this time, he worked in Florence for the city’s unofficial rulers, the Medicis, and their circle, save a sojourn to Rome at the behest of the pope to create frescos in the Sistine Chapel.
Many of his masterpiece paintings were likely commissioned by members of the Medici family. A noblewoman close to the family, Simonetta Vespucci, may have been used as a model to create an ideal female figure in a number of those works. An exquisite drawing in the exhibit titled “Study of the head of a woman in profile” is also known as “La Bella Simonetta.” A large number of Botticelli’s surviving drawings are of detailed and poetic head studies. This particular drawing closely resembles a Botticelli painting of a woman in profile that has the features of Simonetta and shows her wearing a necklace of a famous ancient cameo that was a prized object in the Medici family’s art collection.
Shifting to the SacredWhen Florence shifted to a theocracy in 1494, Botticelli’s style and subject matter changed radically. His work became austere and solely focused on sacred topics. The exhibition’s expressive chalk and ink drawing “The Devout Jews at Pentecost” is an example from this period. It depicts eight figures gathered around a central door. It is believed that this scene was also painted as a lower half of an altarpiece that survives today as a large fragment showing the apostles filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues.
In his lifetime, Botticelli’s earlier works were critically preferred as his later style was considered severe, heavy-handed, and unpolished. Documentation from the period reports that Botticelli fell from critical favor and faced financial ruin. However, in recent times there has been a critical reassessment of this late career output, and “Botticelli Drawings” argues that it represents an experimental phrase. Scholars now view this work as foreshadowing the style that would follow the High Renaissance, what is known as Mannerism.
Botticelli’s late painting of “Judith with the Head of Holofernes” reflects Mannerist characteristics, which include elongated and exaggerated figures, artificial color, an overall sense of strangeness despite superficial naturalism, and an unrealistic compression of space. One can appreciate how quickly Botticelli’s style changed as just a few years before “Judith with the Head of Holofernes” he painted “The Annunciation,” which markedly showcases Botticelli’s use of mathematical perspective in order to give the illusion of three-dimensional depth.
“Botticelli Drawings” curator Mr. Rinaldi says, “This exhibition offers a truly unique opportunity to see and understand Botticelli’s thought and design process leading to the making of his memorable masterpieces.” The show expands one’s understanding of Botticelli while proving that new insights about an Old Master are still possible.