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Monday, December 28, 2015

Raphael, a Baby Unicorn, and a Mysterious Sitter Come to the Legion of Honor

Posted By on Mon, Dec 28, 2015 at 12:00 PM

click to enlarge Raphael (1483–1520), Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn, ca. 1505–1506. Oil on canvas, transferred from panel, 26 5/8 x 20 15/16 in. (67.7 x 53.2 cm). Galleria Borghese, Rome, inv 371
  • Raphael (1483–1520), Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn, ca. 1505–1506. Oil on canvas, transferred from panel, 26 5/8 x 20 15/16 in. (67.7 x 53.2 cm). Galleria Borghese, Rome, inv 371

The Legion of Honor seldom has an exhibition on just one work of art. But Esther Bell, the curator of European paintings, says Raphael’s Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn merits the attention.

“It’s one of Raphael’s crown jewels, and it’s never traveled to the U.S before,” Bell said about the High Renaissance painting that’s part of the collection at the Gallery Borghese in Rome. “It’s so graceful and full of harmony and symmetry — it’s incredibly intriguing. Who is this beautiful blonde woman? And why a unicorn?”

Scholars make lots of speculations about the painting: One is that it was commissioned for a wedding because of the prominent necklace the woman wears. In art history, pearls stand for purity and rubies for prosperity and fidelity, Bell says. Unicorns, she adds, are mythical beasts that supposedly virgins could capture. It would have been more common to have a dog, the symbol of fidelity, in a painting like this, she said- another reason people are fascinated with this work of Raphael’s.

Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn shows similarities to the Mona Lisa, painted by one of Raphael’s idols, Leonardo da Vinci. As in that canonical painting, the woman has a solemn expression, sits in front of a distant landscape, and has her hands folded in her lap.

The exhibition explores the stylistic relationship between the two paintings, the iconography, and the possible identity of the sitter. But you don’t need any special knowledge of art history to enjoy the painting, Bell says.

“It’s one of the most beautiful and interesting examples of the Italian High Renaissance, and it’s presented in a way that encourages long and thoughtful contemplation,” she said. “Anyone can appreciate beauty.”

Sublime Beauty: Raphael's "Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn," Jan. 9 - Apr. 10, at the Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., 415-750-3600.


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