Over a Thanksgiving trip to Portland, Oregon, I came upon a pleasant surprise, Raphael’s Donna Velata, was visiting the Portland Art Museum for a one-painting loan exhibition. One of my top 10 favorite paintings, I had last seen the veiled lady at the Art Institute of Chicago 10 years ago, when two Renaissance portraits had been sent from Florence in exchange for five Monets.
Who is this Donna Velata, this remarkable woman, who is succeeding in the quest to bring crowds into smaller regional museums? How can she capture so much attention? She is not as well known as the Mona Lisa, but most of my students past and present have stated a preference for the kinder, gentler vision of womanhood presented by Raphael over the all-knowing, godly woman of Leonardo.
The white lady wins over the shadows of Mona Lisa. Donna Velata’s dress is luxurious, full, silky and lined with gold. The sleeves are voluminous. An elegant necklace doesn’t detract from the welcoming gaze from that lovely face where the eyes alone can hold our attention. Invisible lines between the eyes’ inner corners lead directly downward to where her fingers point between the breasts, perhaps a suggestive motif, however subtle. We are quickly pulled back up to those captivating eyes.
Certainly Raphael put a great deal of love into this portrait and she appears to be the image for Raphael’s Madonnas of the same time. Giorgio Vasari, seeing the painting 1550, wrote that the subject was Raphael’s lover. Some scholars claim similarities in appearance to the slightly later portrait of La Fornarina, a bare-breasted, more provocative image with a harder finish and less appealing mouth and chin. Either woman could be Margherita Luti, whom the artist appears to have loved but never married, as he provided for her in his will when he died prematurely at age 37.
When the Art Institute exhibited the painting, its literature argued that the portrait may have been someone’s wife, because the veil was a convention of married women in Rome when it was painted, probably between 1513 and 1516.
Regardless of its meaning, the veil brings harmony to the composition and unifies the color, a balance of mainly whites, neutrals and small touches of warmth. The beige of the veil blends with the white of flesh, a tiny but luminous pearl and the sparkling dress. Unity and perfection are goals of both the Donna Velata and the Mona Lisa. Raphael explained his perceptions in a letter: “I do make with a certain Idea that comes into my mind” Raphael’s Idea is an idea of beauty something more beautiful than can be found in one woman, and must be searched for in many and then portrayed through the mind’s eye. Certainly Raphael’s Idea evolved over time in his career, as hair changed from medium tones to dark brown, eyes grew larger and face became rounder, lips fuller.
No reproduction can capture her beauty, as shadows in photographs tend to harden her real softness. Her eyes–deep, brown and open–engage the viewer, inviting us into her warmth and love. She is kind, generous, forgiving, indeed an ideal of womanhood and all humanity. Furthermore, as we are directed to her face, unadorned with makeup and framed by simple, pulled-back hair, we note a lack of pretense and utter earthiness. The clothes and necklace are unnecessary for the real drawing power of this natural beauty. If we think she is too perfect and that humans cannot achieve this state of being, I noted one imperfection–a dangling hair out of place, seldom seen in photos. She is mother to all, a person we can aspire to be. You must see her in real life to become fully immersed in her warmth and love. It is not who she is that is so important, but the aspiration for what humanity can become that she represents.
Portland, Milwaukee and Reno, Nevada will have the opportunity to see her. Whether or not she can compete with the attention given to casinos in Nevada remains to be seen. It is ironic that her simplicity and grace will be so close to the glare, glitter and aesthetic overkill of Las Vegas, not to mention greed and debauchery–the latter which call to mind one theory that fine art can bring moral improvement. Is this a case where art’s purpose is to morally uplift us where and when it is needed most?