This week, Dr Nick Gordon looks at some online exhibitions of artists who redefined the relationship between art and celebrity in their own lifetimes: Raphael, Rembrandt and Warhol.

Raphael at the Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome
Raphael, a self-portrait from 1506–08, Gallerie degli Uffizi

This year is the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael, an artist so successful in his own lifetime that he attained the epithet ‘Divine’. To honour the artist, Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale organised Raffaello 1520-1483, which brings together almost 120 works by Raphael. These include key masterpieces – from the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Prado and the National Gallery, London – for the first time in one show. The exhibition was due to close in early June, but has been extended until the end of August.

For those of us unable or unlikely to make it to Rome over the next few months, there is an excellent online walk-through. The exhibition moves backwards in time, from the funeral of Raphael, to the height of his career in papal Rome, to his formative years in Florence and Urbino. The exhibition includes some of Raphael’s finest portraits, including his friend from Urbino and author of the Book of the Courtier, Baldassare Castiglione, La Velata (often assumed to be his mistress), and Pope Leo X, the first Medici pope who sits beside his cousin, the future Clement VII.

For contemporaries, Raphael was the essence of sprezzatura – an unstudied nonchalance; it was as if art flowed effortlessly from his hands, and this miraculous quality in his work is evident in the exhibition. Raphael’s success when seen backwards makes it clear, however, that his success was not a fait accompli. Raphael’s much vaunted ‘grace’ was the product of careful study and consistent application of talent, and the selection of works helps bring out how Raphael learned from previous masters, such as Leonardo, or integrated the new ideas of his contemporaries, such as Michelangelo, into his own work. In this respect, the inclusion of many preparatory sketches is invaluable – it shows us a kind of ‘behind the scenes’ view on the masterpieces, although even the preparatory works look perfect.

Unpeeling the development of his career also makes it clear that Raphael’s success was not just due to his skill as an artist. He was also an exceptional courtier who could rub shoulders with princes and popes as easily as with baker’s daughters, all of whom are shown in the exhibition. This glimpse into his world reveals him to be a master of self-fashioning – the ability to craft a public persona and maintain it in different situations. So successful was he at this that it was perfectly conceivable that he’d once stopped working on the papal banker’s villa because he was pining for his lover, and that he died of a fever induced by a night of too much sex, and was still ‘divine’.

Rembrandt at the Ashmolean and in SoCal
Rembrandt, Tobit Accusing Anna of Stealing the Kid, 1626 © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Raphael exhibition comes on the back of a string of artist’s death anniversaries, from the 500th anniversary of Hieronymus Bosch in 2016 to Bruegel’s 450th and Rembrandt’s 350th in 2019. Rembrandt exhibitions in particular have seen lasting success, although part of the recent interest in him is due to something beyond his paintings.

To explore the art and life of Rembrandt, the Ashmolean in Oxford have put up an online walk-through of their exhibition, Young Rembrandt, with the curator, An Van Camp. The exhibition traces the extraordinary development of Rembrandt from his apprenticeship in Leiden in the 1620s to the first flush of fame in 1630s Amsterdam. The virtual tour is accompanied by a room-by-room walkthrough of hi res images and accompanying text.

To see more of where Rembrandt went after his early success, it’s worth taking a look at the small virtual tour Rembrandt in SoCal – a virtual exhibition of the 14 Rembrandts in Southern Californian museums, including the Getty, LACMA and the Hammer Museum. These works, reproduced beautifully with accompanying text, show the development of Rembrandt’s style, from the highly finished portraits for the late 1630s to the rougher, impasto-laden late works, at which many an artist marvelled at the range of tone and colour he could produce with so little at his disposal.

Self-portraits recur in both exhibitions, and few artists produced as many as Rembrandt. But there’s a reason for this, as Prof H Perry Chapman has argued in a lecture for the Boston MFA, which is available free on YouTube.

Perry Chapman shows how Rembrandt was deeply involved in his own image-making, and employed a very deliberate strategy of presenting himself as a gentlemen on the one hand, and as a maligned genius who was unconcerned by merely worldly affairs on the other. In doing so, Rembrandt fashioned the persona of the modern artist. The lecture is just one of the many on Boston MFA’s YouTube channel, whose overall quality is excellent.

Warhol at Tate Modern
Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait 1986, Tate © 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Inc.

Any quick look at celebrity among artists cannot avoid Andy Warhol. It’s not simply for his fame – an aspect of his life that has been, perhaps, a bit overdone. If we don’t get too caught up in the spin (both his own, and that of some of his collectors) then his engagement with the cult of the celebrity in an era when new media reshaped mass communication is historically interesting.

But this aspect of Warhol’s work does not define his whole output. Tate Modern’s spring exhibition looks at Warhol from different perspectives – immigrant experience in the USA, his relationship to LGBTQI communities, and attitudes towards death and politics in his late works. The intersection of these themes in Room 9 is particularly good – it contains Warhol’s photographs and paintings of Latinx and African-American drag queens and trans women in the early 1970s. These take you a long way from the iconic soup and sunglasses version of Warhol, and show a more aesthetically serious and politically committed artist.

The exhibition walk-through, conducted by curators Gregor Muir and Fiontán Moran doesn’t labour their point, however. The walk through is paired with a room-by-room tour, with accompanying text and a selection of works to look closer at.

The type of gentle revisionism that this show presents is part of what keeps an artist’s reputation alive. While none of these artists ‘need’ to be rediscovered by any stretch of the imagination, it is nonetheless fascinating how curators and art historians find new aspects of their lives and works to bring to us, as if an artist’s celebrity consists of its multiplication over time.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.