Monday, 11 March 2013

Raphael's "The Triumph of Galatea" - the most graceful painting in the world

I realise that the title of this post contains a bold claim - but, to me, this is the most graceful painting in the world. I've never even seen the original in the Villa Farnese in Rome. I've come across many reproductions of it, of course, but it never meant that much to me until about five years ago when I was leafing through an Abrams Art Book on Raphael which I've owned since 1978. I experienced one of those rare heart-stopping moments when you become conscious of being in the presence of perfection.

Until that point I'd never paid much attention to Raphael. As a young man, I'd been keen on the Pre-Raphaelites, and, being an ignorant, shallow twit, had assumed that - given the movement's name - one had to pick sides ("Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: Two -Raphael: One. PRB go through to the next round" etc...)

Of course, it wasn't Raphael's paintings that those randy young Victorian chaps disapproved of: it was that the  principles underlying his art had been remorselessly dunned into them as the only correct ones by their art teachers. In particular, they objected to the dogma that all pictures had to have idealised subjects arranged in a pyramidal structure in which everything is perfectly balanced, with the highlight on the central figure (all obvious features of the above painting). As an art historian points out in the first episode of a series about the Pre-Raphaelites currently being broadcast on BBC Two (available here), the Brotherhood were careful to use the word "Raphaelite" rather than "Raphael".

Galatea was a Nereid, an oceam spirit, a daughter of Poseidon, who fell in love with a shepherd, Acis, much to the displeasure of her splenetic, one-eyed husband, the Giant Polyphemus, who - as giants are wont to do - smashed his love-rival to death. The painting captures  Galatea's transformation into an immortal - a reward for the sufferings she has undergone in life. The compisition is obviously full of sex, what with the putti and the Triton (the prototype for Viz's Billy the Fish, one presumes) and the Centaur and the sea-nymphs, and so on. Galatea herself seems cut off from all these horny shenanigans - oblivious to the love darts being fired at her, she gazes raptly and purely up towards heaven.

Anyway, none of that really matters - I'm not hugely interested in mythology and I'm really not into little fat boys (with or without wings or bows and arrows). The fact that Galatea's face is stunningly beautiful helps, of course, but the real glory of this paintings lies in the very principles the PRB were so keen to eschew: the poise, elegance, balance, lightness and glorious use of colour which make this picture an almost Platonic ideal of gracefulness.

I used to be a Michaelangelo man - and I still am when it comes to sculpture. As for paintings, though, I'm now very defintitely a Raphaelite.

The Triumph of Galatea takes my breath away every time I see a reproduction of it. One of these days, I'll stand in front of the original.


  1. I can't add anything that can't be found on Google.As befits a fresco its a fair old size 116''x 88"and one suspects its been restored over the years as the Roman wall its painted on probably was unlikely to have had a damp-proof course.
    The painting of female flesh is much more agreeable than say Rubens.

  2. I keep forgetting it's a fresco - should be reminded by the quality of the blue in the background. Yes, it's a pity about Rubens and his obsession with cellulite: he was obviously a splendid human being - full of life and joy and generosity, without a hint of viciousness - so it's a pity one can't warm more to his paintings, especially those of fat ladies.