Botticelli Drawings

Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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For the first-ever exhibition dedicated to the rare drawings of world-famous Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli, San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum has unveiled five newly attributed drawings by Botticelli, based on extensive research by the museum’s curator of prints and drawings, Furio Rinaldi.

This captivating, comprehensive, scholarly, and well-mounted exhibit contains more than 60 works from 39 lending institutions, including drawings from Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence; British Museum, London; and the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, plus important paintings from the National Gallery, London; the Galleria Borghese, Rome; and the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The artistry of Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, better known as Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445 – 1510), epitomizes 15th-century Italian Renaissance artworks. Immediately recognizable for the paintings “La Primavera” (1477–1482) and the “Birth of Venus” (1485–1486), Botticelli’s oeuvre is characterized by gorgeous curved, delicate lines that give life, grace, and sensuality to his graphics and paintings. Botticelli’s work presents a unique form of realism with a touch of abstraction. As an early adapter of the practice of making preliminary drawings of the human body from models, one can see the importance and value of Botticelli’s use of curved lines to convey emotions.

Botticelli was born, lived, and worked in Florence, Italy, where he started his artistic life as a goldsmith. He then apprenticed under the renowned painter Fra Filippo Lippi (c. 1406 – 1469) before he worked with the painter and engraver Antonio del Pollaiuolo. By 1470, he had his own Florentine workshop. Botticelli spent almost his entire life working for the Medici family and their circle, for whom he painted some of his most impressive and sensual paintings, such as “La Primavera.” In a rare departure from Florence, the artist helped decorate the recently completed Sistine Chapel walls in the Vatican.

Unfortunately, in the 1490s, the Medici were expelled from Florence, Italy’s peace was disrupted by invasion and illness, and Botticelli lost favor. He became a follower of the fanatical Dominican friar Savonarola and ultimately died in depression and poverty in 1510. Botticelli’s oeuvre was largely forgotten until the 19th-century British art movement when the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood rediscovered him.

Curator Rinaldi posits that Botticelli’s late-in-life poverty and the slowdown of his artistic output contributed to the loss of most of the artist’s graphics. Less than three dozen confirmed drawings survive today. Because of the rarity and fragility of Botticelli’s works on paper, those few that survived the centuries rarely leave their institutions. Many of the exhibition’s drawings are away from home for the first time.

So “Botticelli’s Drawings” presents a rare opportunity to gain a welcome appreciation of the art and life of Botticelli, especially if one starts with the richly prepared, interesting documentary film, “The Secrets of Botticelli’s Drawings,” Which in less than 20 minutes explores and explains Botticelli’s life and works.

The exhibit itself is arranged chronologically, beginning with the artist’s early days as a student of Fra Filippo Lippi and ending with drawings and designs for his final painting. A mint green background highlights those works by Botticelli. The labels and wall placards are explanatory and easy to read and understand.

As the exhibit continues, one can appreciate how Botticelli used his drawings to think through the creation of his paintings. Where possible, preparatory designs were placed in groups with paintings, like “Adoration of the Magi” (1475–1476), so Botticelli’s method could be observed. The show also explores how Botticelli’s works grew and became bolder over time. For example, he was the first artist to paint women who directly faced the viewer rather than placing them in profile as objects. The “Portrait of a Lady at the Window, Known as Smeralda Bandinelli” (c. 1475), is a great example.

Since many drawings are small and delicate, it’s best to come early in the day when the museum is less crowded. For those who appreciate the artistry of Sandro Botticelli, the Legion of Honor’s exhibition is not to be missed.

The Legion of Honor Museum (part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) has an extensive collection of ancient, European, decorative, and sculpture, including its well-regarded Rodin galleries. The inspiring Beaux Art–style building, designed by George Applegarth, will be 100 years old next year. Located majestically on a bluff in Lincoln Park overlooking the Golden Gate and the Pacific Ocean, it’s one of the finest sights in San Francisco.

By Emily S. Mendel

© Emily S. Mendel 2023 All Rights Reserved

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