Today’s Three Graces come to us from Raphael, a masterful Italian Renaissance painter. This tiny (6.5″x6.5″ or 17x17cm) oil painting resides in the Musée Condé of Chantilly, France. He painted this around 1503, in his late teens. This is only a couple of decades after Botticelli’s immense Primavera was painted in Florence.
While Primavera is a dense, multi-layered allegory about divine and mortal love, Raphael chose to focus solely on the physical forms of the Graces. He was undoubtedly inspired by classical motifs of the Graces, which were common in Italy at the time. This is a similar Pomeian example, typical of the classic representation:
To me, Raphael’s vision of the Graces looks like an experiment, or maybe an artistic task. Raphael’s Graces is more or less the size of a mousepad, with a strict color palette, featuring a well known theme from antiquity. It wouldn’t surprise me if he used these parameters to hone other skills, like composition and brushwork. The focus of the painting is on Raphael’s obsession with harmony and beauty and realism, expressed through the composition.
I think it’s also likely his Graces also represent Chastity (no necklace, kinda wearing clothes), Voluptuas, and Beauty.
The three figures spring from the ground like flowers, their legs the stems, each with one foot solidly rooted on the earth and the other gently lifting. Their bodies curve harmoniously like dancers though they stand still. They wait, absorbed in their mysterious orbs while exhibiting a gentle awareness of one other.
Strikingly, the central figure faces away from us, arms outstretched. Some see this as a deliberate mixing of classical (the nude Graces) and Christian iconography (the outstretched arms of the central figure, suggestive of a crucifix). The far left and right figures flank the central figure with an almost perfect symmetry of torsos, arms, and heads.
In the same way, the colors used suggest a certain earthiness mixed with the divine. These women represent the Italian Renaissance standard of beauty with auburn hair, fair skin, and soft bodies. Every other color used in this painting complements the coloring of these Graces- the deliberate shades of red used for the necklaces and spheres, the blue sky, hidden green background and tawny foreground.
It’s as if Raphael deliberately chose the colors that would complement the fair, firey complexions of the Graces. This furthers the illusion that these women sprang from the earth itself or perhaps it’s the opposite. They inhabit a world created for them.
The commonest interpretation of this painting explains that these are the Hespirades, nymphs who guard the Golden Apples in a garden at the edge of the world, but no one knows for sure. Hercules and other heros quested to find the Golden Apples, which appear in any number of myths and generally impart wisdom or immortality, or are simply objects of desire.
This is perhaps another blending of Classical and Christian themes. In the book of Genesis, Eve (the first woman) eats the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, gives it to her husband. As a result, they are cast out of Paradise and the presence of God to toil in the world of sin we know today. The fruit Eve ate is often represented in art by a bright, shining red apple.
But are they holding apples? One orb shows the suggestion a stem, but otherwise Raphael left it ambiguous. Why do they gaze so calmy, so intently into the spheres? Do the orbs represent a reward? Are they pretty placeholders? Raphael lays bare his Graces, but draws a veil over the mystery of their gaze. (Maybe they can see Mercury in their little red spheres? )
Raphael’s Graces were based on other versions of Graces. His stands out for harmony of color and composition which inspires others through history (small sample!):
I particularly like that Vargas photo, though his Graces don’t have the same “earth and sky” quality.
Let’s play “two words” again, that was fun. My two words for Raphael’s work is “iconic” and “pensive.” Which two words would you use? What do you see in Raphael’s Graces?