“Raphael—Paintings that Become Living Things…”

Giorgio Vasari, the famed 16th century Italian painter, architect, writer, and chronicler of history, best known for his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, wrote the following about Raphael Sanzio: “While we may term other works paintings, those of Raphael are living things; the flesh palpitates, the breath comes and goes, every organ lives, life pulsates everywhere.” (Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, 1568)

This entry by Vasari in his chronicle of painters, sculptors, and architects during his lifetime, really captures the astonishing reception viewers receive, some for the first time, when gazing upon the portraits made by Raphael. In particular, I draw your attention to the Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione! Not only does the portrait face of Castiglione “palpitate”, there is the sense that the facial skin has warmth if you were to actually reach out and touch it (of course you won’t/can’t!); the chest, beneath the heavy clothing, moves with each breath; the outlet layer of clothing, the model’s beard all have a perceptible weight, texture, and an incredibly strong sense of tactile reality! And these qualities of looking at a portrait of a “living” being also appear so effortless! There is an Italian word for the perception of effortlessness—Sprezzatura!

What are your thoughts/feelings when you examine Raphael’s formal portrait of Baldassare Castiglione? Do you see or sense that Raphael seems to excel in the craft/art of painting “living” portraits”?

Raphael, Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, 1514-15, Louvre

Raphael, Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, detail

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.


20 thoughts on ““Raphael—Paintings that Become Living Things…””

  1. The first thing I notice about this painting is its stunning realism. The skin tones are pinker on his cheeks than his fore head or hands. This really brings the man to life. The eyes show the emotion the man has very well. I interpret him to be slightly confused or annoyed looking. Maybe he was sitting and posing for a long time. His thick beard does not take away from the fact that you are very much able to see the dimensions of his head. Raphael Sanzio demonstrates great attention to detail in all his paintings by the way he is able to paint fabrics. It is like you can feel the texture of the shirt and hat the man is wearing.

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  2. After closely examining Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, I can see where the acclaim comes from regarding his ability to portray a sense of “living.” I believe he is able to achieve this effect effortlessly by his use of warm, comforting colors, immense attention to detail, and realistic portrayal of this gentleman’s features. The man depicted carries a relaxed posture with gently placed hands, neutral facial expression, and soft textured clothing. He also keeps it especially realistic by retaining what may commonly be considered imperfections such as the bags under his eyes or the subtle inconsistencies in his beard. The combined attributes of this painting actually induce feelings of comfort and serenity in me. This mildly sedated feeling paired with staring at the painting for a while really does give it a palpitating effect. Whether it is an optical illusion or not, I can really see his chest rising and falling and maybe even the start of a little smile. So yes, he certainly excels in achieving this effect.

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  3. When looking at this painting, I immediately see a sense of realism that wasn’t quite appearing before. I feel like I have been looking at a lot of realistic sculptures, or extremely detailed art. However, when I look at this piece I notice the more extensive use of color, shading, and details in the fur and beard. The expressions in sculptures have been fascinating, but putting color and tones into this mans face gives an entirely new meaning. This painting is so serious and the blue being the pop of color makes you want to stare back at the image. I think Raphael definitely excels in creating living portraits, when I look at his other paintings as well. I love the attention to even the smallest details and the realism that is now being portrayed in art.

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  4. I do think that he creates ‘living portraits’! The skin tones are very realistic, as well as the shading. What I think makes them the most ‘alive’ is the glow in the eyes. They look very real and sparkly! I bet if you were to see this in a museum, it would be one of those portraits that the eyes would follow you as you walked from one side of the room to the other. Also, the clothing looks very real, especially the gray fur thing. I think Raphael is a master at realism, and using light/shading. Really talented artists can bring out the beauty that shines from within.

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  5. One thing I find interesting about this painting is Raphael’s use of light and shadow in contrast to other painters. Though chiaroscuro was effectively used throughout the Renaissance, his use of the technique was rather distinct. Some employ chiaroscuro as a way of illuminating the darkness and containing strong contrasts to bring out the features of the subject. Others have a subtler balance of light and shadow, thus giving a softer appearance and glow. Raphael, however, seems to have used a more dynamic and extremely nuanced range of light and shadows to better depict textures of various materials. I think this is a key factor in what makes his painting much more ‘palpable’ and why others’ works are deemed mere paintings in comparison to Raphael’s work as ‘living things’. Some say he is a ‘mortal God’; while other great artists make exquisite representations, they do not compare to Raphael’s work that seems to breathe life itself.

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  6. There is something to be said about eye-contact for a prolonged amount of time. It gives a sense of dreamy contemplation, definitely translating to a “palpitation”– especially when created through a sole medium of paint via human hand/mind.

    Time and skill equals mastery arguably. You can sense the overwhelming amount of that through the expression on his face painted eloquently.

    Anything that can create emotional response through human characteristic mimicry in non-human form is truly a surreal level of life.

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  7. My first impression is a takeaway from what I know of Raphael – His cherubim at the bottom of the Madonna di San Sisto. This portrait shares some similar facial features to those cherubs – the direction of the gaze, the depth of shadows and the healthy skin….
    I am impressed by his coat’s depth color and texture. I’m a bit of a fabric geek… his coat-sleeves are textured like fuzzy velvet, the balloon sleeves have depth in the folds, his linen tunic is clean and crisp and the ornaments on his hat and belt shine just enough to make their presence known. The rich colors and textures speak to his status, despite their understated elegance, the shaded tonality of the fabric, the light background, as well as the intelligent but simple presence of the sitter are arresting. His beard is well groomed, his hands are clean – nails well groomed, his skin is soft – face free of worry and toil. Castiglione wrote “The Book of the Courtier”, a genre of prescriptive courtesy books or books of manners, dealing with issues of etiquette, self-presentation, and morals, particularly at princely, or royal courts, So, we’re looking at a high society fella.

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  8. I can definitely agree that Raphael creates living portraits. From his ability to create skin tone, the ability to make a three dimensional image especially when portraits can so easily fall flat when put against a plain background, and most of all, it is the way that he is able to create emotion in his subject’s eyes.

    By being able to give this person a sense of palpable emotion puts him on a entirely different level of artist. Anyone could create a flat recreation of what they see and even could add a type of overall emotion through their use of colors, but by being able to pinpoint that feeling solely into the subject’s eyes just makes it so much more realistic.

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  9. This piece is stunning! The thing that stands out the most to me is the bead. The texture in the beard is so life-like. Everything about this painting is so incredibly life-like. The warm colors are so comforting, and Raphael paid attention to every little detail and wrinkle. His eyes also stand out so much. I almost feel like they are watching me! I would definitely say that Raphael excels in the art of painting “living” portraits! He really pays close attention to every detail, highlight, and shadow.

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  10. My first impression looking at this wonderful portrait of Baldassarre Castiglione was how realistic it is! This is definitely one of Raphael’s best portraits. The skin and hair of Baldassarre is very detailed. You can see the wrinkles under his eyes, smooth skin, and very rough textured beard. It is almost like you can feel it. The use of shading and the light that shines on his eyes made this portrait very real. From only looking at this portrait, you can sense that Raphael excel in painting “living” portrait.

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  11. When first analyzing the photo you can really see the attention to detail and how accurate it looks. Looking at the eyes especially it has a reflection in the eye like a real one and that shows dedication to the craft. The beard seems to have random strands of grey hairs like a normal beard and also the lighting of the painting. It seemed as if when he was painting him he even got how the light was hitting his face. Raphael does excel in the living portrait craft which I imagine can’t be easy considering drawing a person with such precision must take patients and excruciating detail to be as good as he was.

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  12. When examining Raphael’s formal portrait of Baldassare Castiglione I find myself overwhelmed with the awareness that while I am merely gazing at a portrait I can’t stop feeling as though Castiglione is merely sitting across a table from me. The way Raphael was able to not only capture the details of Castiglione’s beard and the small delicate creases and folds surrounding, almost framing Castiglione’s penetratingly deep blue eyes is spellbinding. Divergent from that of many painters, Raphael’s paintings are sensational in the way that does not merely paint rather he births a sense of life into each of the characters he paints. I do not simply “sense” Raphael’s excellence in the art of painting “living” portraits, I truly believe that his work is extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world.

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  13. I love Raphael’s painting of Baldassare. I think this painting looks more “real life” then everything we have looked at so far. I also have realized that out of the artist we have covered so far Raphael is my favorite. I choose to write my first paper on him because his work “attracted” me the most. I feel he knew how to go deeper when just painting a portrait. What I like most about this painting is that is skin color changes based on his angle and I think that is what makes it look so life like.

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  14. When first analyzing the photo, you become a bit overwhelmed because there is so much detail to pay attention to as well as just him staring into you. I can imagine him just staring at me like I may have did something wrong. Overall, I believe that this artwork is deeper than any portrait. It’s more than just a painting since the color changes with the angle like one of my fellow peers stated above. The painting is so much like real life rather than just color, almost like it was a picture taken in high-defintion.

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  15. By just looking at Raphael’s painting I feel like Baldassare is “alive.” The color, light, and shadow make it possible to feel not only the warmth, but also depths, especially the eyes. Unlike other portraits, I think Raphael’s painting stands out in that it did not only duplicate the model but painted in that the viewer can feel the texture in his beard, hats, and other details that blows in full vitality of Baldassare. I really respect Baldassare’s portrait because I think everyone can duplicate, or simply draw how the model looks can be is more part of the artist’s technique, which can be practiced through many years but putting the artist’s personal emotion and sensibility in an artwork is what brings the art special and unique. Everyone can draw a circle, but they cannot all draw their own circle.

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  16. Raphael’s formal portrait of Baldassare Castiglione caught my immediate attention when I was looking through the slides. The realism literally stopped me in my tracks while I was scrolling. To me, you can feel the life behind this portrait. From the suppleness of his skin to the individual, scruffy beard hairs, it feels like you’re looking at a photograph instead of a painting. I feel like I can even see the type of fabric his clothing is made out of. I was truly impressed by Raphael’s technique and skill. He has become one of my favorite artists from this class.

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  17. The first thing I notice about this painting are the eyes, not the color, but the positioning. There is something about his eyes and the way that they do not look “perfect” that makes this painting so realistic. To me when I can spot the human imperfections within a portrait and make a connection with them, then the painting becomes more realistic and life-like because it becomes a person with a story, not just a person in an old painting. I do think Raphael excelled in painting living portraits, especially because even though a lot of his subjects don’t have any sort of facial expressions to convey emotion, almost every person can agree that when they look at Raphael’s work they feel something.

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  18. After having written my first writing assignment on this portrait, I really enjoyed it. I think that this painting truly does come to life. The focus is not on the background of the painting, but rather it explores the facial features of Castiglione. This is what brings the painting to life. His face seems to truly be living, and the great detail of the rest of his portrait adds to this. The great detail in his clothing, his hat, and his facial features almost make it seem as if he is perfectly preserved in this picture.

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  19. There is a sense of realism in Raphael’s work with this painting red cheeks and weary eyes, however I have seen other works of art where they have incorporated a more modern style to it. Brighter color, the use of light and more textures and details in the flesh such as wrinkles, marks, and shadows. This is a very straight forward and simple painting from Raphael but I would not call it his best work.

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  20. Raphael formal portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, was very detailed and authentic . Just the little detail such as the pinkness in his lips and the blueness in his eye, give a more vivid detail. The head shaping and the form of the bread is what gives it the “real life” painting.


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