fb-pixel Skip to main content

Hero worship, with nerve in ‘Raphael and the Fornarina’


This simperingly saucy and slightly ridiculous picture was painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the great 19th-century neoclassicist. It hangs in the Harvard Art Museums' temporary galleries at the Sackler Museum, and I adore it.

Not quite as much, perhaps, as Ingres adored Raphael, whom he looked upon as a bona fide god; and certainly not as much as Raphael adored his mistress, a Roman bakeress called Margherita Luti. Known to art history as "La Fornarina" (Italian for bakeress), she's the one staring out at you with those calm, dark eyes.

Raphael, who died in 1520 on his 37th birthday, expired, if you want to believe Giorgio Vasari, from too much lovemaking. One drawing by a contemporary of Ingres, Fulchran-Jean Harriet, actually imagined Raphael conking out on top of "La Fornarina." A great story — and potentially a great picture; I've never seen it.


The lives of the great artists were the subject of quickening interest in Ingres's day. This was a symptom not just of neoclassical reverence for the past but of Romantic exaggeration — from which Ingres himself was far from immune.

Here, you feel him almost bursting with sincerity about the importance of his own calling as a painter. He depicts an interval in the painting of Raphael's lover's portrait. It's a break Raphael himself seems reluctant to take: He has eyes only for his art.

His model's gaze meets ours not only from her perch on Raphael's lap, but from the unfinished portrait on the easel. That portrait is based on a famous image thought to be by Raphael, but since attributed to his pupil Giulio Romano. A similar face is depicted in a Raphaelesque Madonna propped against the far wall.

There's a complex interplay, in other words, between real and imagined, sensual and sacred, work and love. And it gets even more complicated when we register the extent to which, for Ingres, painting was a kind of religion, a sacred calling combining both the spiritual and the sensual.


But as always with Ingres, the bigger idea of the picture tends to get overtaken by unnerving effects, hypnotic details. New things hook me in this picture every time I see it. It might be the clock in the distance (1:30 in the afternoon: an amorous hour); the disconcerting bonelessness of "La Fornarina" 's shoulder; or the way the light hits the lively curve at the right edge of Raphael's cape.

Most recently, I've been obsessing over Raphael's crimson stockings. The color — against her green velvet dress and his dark, diagonally sweeping cape — is outrageous, as if imported from another world.

But even more, it's the modeling of the feet. There they are: two highly particular, oddly amputated, three-dimensional forms, rendered to the brink of perfection, as if sculpted in relief, against a backdrop of austere rectilinearity. They are like a mirage — at once undeniably there and rationally impossible.

This picture may flirt with silliness, but in the end you laugh with it, not at it. You have no choice but to admire Ingres's nerve, his calm, his sheer genius for picture-making.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.