A long look at a great painting
The charged human presence of Raphael’s La Donna Velata arrests the eye immediately. Raphael rendered his model at life size and fashioned her head and neck to create an uncanny illusion of volume. She gazes from about eye level, alone in small, darkened room at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Walking into the gallery is like coming upon a beautiful woman in a private chamber. She’s glad to see you.
The setting fits. La Donna is Raphael’s sensual, dynamic response to Leonardo’s serene Mona Lisa. Leonardo’s woman is enigmatic, but elegant and stable. La Donna is inviting. She wears a sumptuous, fancy-dress sleeve over a filmy undergarment. A vent in the sleeve has opened into a oval gap that reveals the undergarment, and the folds and shape suggest intimate female anatomy. Her splayed index and middle finger touch the space between her breasts and depress the gauzy fabric. A loose-hanging strand of hair speaks of delight in disorder.
The overall palette seems to be of porcelain skin and eggshell whites and gold. But close viewing reveals reds rising from beneath the surface and worked subtly into highlights. The particular red Raphael mixed into the porcelain cheeks works slowly on the retinae; perhaps the most amazing trick in this painting is the way La Donna seems to blush as you gaze upon her.
And do gaze upon her for a long time. The longer you look, the more you see.
Beyond the astonishing modeling of a human being, Raphael forged a most engaging and creative abstraction. At first, the image seems solidly pyramidal, like the Mona Lisa, but La Donna surges with implied motion.
The whole painting swirls in graceful curves starting at the bottom left and sweeping and scrolling up and around her head. The veil, the sleeve, the golden trim of the sleeve, the reds and deep browns amid the hands and bracelet and shadows, the pink flesh beneath the translucent fabric, the necklace, her delicate jawline and hairline all form strata of the grand curve. A swarm of upward-pointing triangular shapes in the folds of her sleeves adds haste and urgency to the whirl.
The Mona Lisa invites contemplation; La Donna invites action. The vortex of it pulls you in toward her lips and her throat, and thus does the most sophisticated abstract form express and stoke human desire.
La Donna will reside in the Milwaukee Art Museum until June 6. Details here.