Botticelli Drawings offers visitors a new look at an Old Master

The landmark show at San Francisco's Legion of Honor reunites the renowned artist’s graphic output, unveiling newly attributed drawings and revealing a bold and unconventional draughtsman

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Left: Sandro Botticelli, Study of the head of a woman in profile (La Bella Simonetta)(recto); Study of the figure of Minerva (verso), c. 1485. Metalpoint, white gouache on light-brown prepared paper (recto), black chalk, pen and brown ink, brown wash, white gouache (verso). 13 ⅜ x 9 in (34.2 x 23 cm). The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. Bequeathed by Francis Douce, 1834. ©️ Ashmolean Museum. Sandro Botticelli. Right: Sandro Botticelli, Head of a Youth, Turned to the Left, ca. 1480. Silverpoint, grey wash, heightened with white, on gray prepared paper, 8 × 7 in (20.5 × 17.9 cm). Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo: Adelaide Beaudoin

One of the world’s most famous and beloved artists, Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, known as Sandro Botticelli, epitomises the flowering of the Renaissance in 15th-century Italy. Botticelli established his reputation from the late 1460s as painter of portraits and religious images, especially Madonnas. But it was his frescoes in the Vatican and a series of mythological pictures in the 1480s that ignited his later revival and ensured his place in art history.

While these paintings — from La Primavera to The Birth of Venus — are renowned for their exquisite line, there has never been a major exhibition dedicated to his drawings, likely due to their scarcity. Botticelli’s unconventional stylistic progression makes attribution challenging. Further, works on paper that are more than 500 years old are by nature fragile. There are fewer than 30 extant drawings securely attributed to Botticelli.

Yet, as the upcoming exhibition Botticelli Drawings aims to demonstrate, the Italian master’s draughtsmanship underpins all his work and most well-known paintings. Held exclusively at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, from 19 November 2023 to 11 February 2024, this is the first exhibition to reunite Botticelli’s graphic output. With support provided by Christie’s, the exhibition brings together more than 60 works from 39 lending institutions from across the United States and Europe, including 27 drawings. Five of these drawings are newly attributed and being unveiled for the first time.

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Sandro Botticelli, Study of the head of a woman in profile (La Bella Simonetta)(recto); Study of the figure of Minerva (verso), c. 1485. Metalpoint, white gouache onlight-brown prepared paper (recto), black chalk, pen and brown ink, brown wash, white gouache (verso). 13 ⅜ x 9 in (34.2 x 23 cm). The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. Bequeathed by Francis Douce, 1834. ©️ Ashmolean Museum

‘We’re looking at a lesser-known aspect of his career, which is nevertheless the most revealing of his work and aesthetic,’ explains the show’s organiser, Furio Rinaldi, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Fine Arts Museums. ‘I wanted to show Botticelli in a contemporary way for a new generation. My aim was to remove him from the mythology of the Italian Renaissance and look directly at his drawings, almost treating him like a contemporary artist. His drawings allow a more intimate understanding of the artist in the sense that they are an unvarnished expression of his ideas.’

Botticelli would draw with metalpoint, silverpoint, chalk, pen, ink, and on linen as well as paper, and the exhibition shows how this wide range of drawings played a central role in building up his other mediums, like his tempura works.

Rinaldi explains, ‘I designed the exhibition as a journey within Botticelli’s mind and creative process, so we’re starting from his earliest renderings whilst working as a draughtsman in Fra Filippo Lippi’s workshop.’ The first room is dedicated to Botticelli’s drawings of the figure. ‘The figure is the element on which Botticelli anchors all his compositions,’ Rinaldi says. ‘Whether a mythological or religious scene or a portrait, the figure is always present and an expression of his humanist ideals of the affirmation of the individual.’

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Sandro Botticelli, Two standing men, one draped (recto), A standing young man with his arm raised (verso). Silverpoint, heightened with white gouache, on yellow-ocher prepared paper (recto and verso), inscribed ‘Piero Pollaiuolo’ (lower right, recto), 7 ¾ x10 ⅜ in (19.8 x 26.5 cm). Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence

The show progresses to Botticelli’s portrait drawings and head studies. Botticelli formalised new portraiture formats. He was, for instance, the first Italian artist to paint a woman looking directly at the viewer and not in profile pose — and the exhibition includes this seminal portrait. He grounded new ideals of male and female beauty in his drawings, responding not just to his direct observations of from life but referencing Classical antiquity and the writings of Dante and Petrarch.

The exhibition goes on to examine how drawing formed the nexus of Botticelli’s own workshop in Florence. His workshop was producing not only paintings, but also embroidery, tapestries, wood marquetry, book illustrations, prints and engravings. At the centre of all these artistic outputs was drawing. He used drawing to visualise and translate ideas across a variety of different media. By integrating all the graphic output from this period, the exhibition makes it clear that all Botticelli’s forms of artistry emanated from his drawings.

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Sandro Botticelli, Head of a Man in Near Profile Looking Left, c. 1468–1470. Metalpoint, traces of black chalk, gray wash, heightened with white, on yellow-ocher prepared paper. 5 ⅛ × 4 ⅜ in (13.2 × 11 cm). By permission of the Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford

In Botticelli’s late years, towards the end of the 15th century, two historical events affected him on both a spiritual level and a personal one: the death of his patron Lorenzo Magnifico and the rise and sudden fall of Girolamo Savonarola, the friar who railed against the corruption of the church and the moral corruption of Florence.

This was happening against an already turbulent backdrop: Botticelli had spent his life working for Florence’s ruling family, the Medici, but in the 1490s they were expelled and a swathe of political upheavals and plagues followed throughout the 1500s. These years have conventionally been interpreted as a period of decline for Botticelli, but the exhibition reframes this period as one of his most experimental phases, and a development from his earlier work.

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Sandro Botticelli, Devout People of Jerusalem at Pentecost, c. 1505. Black chalk, pen and brown ink, brown wash, highlighted with white gouache on paper. 9 ⅛ x 14 ⅜ in (23.1 x36.5 cm). Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Photograph by Wolfgang Fuhrmannek

It is widely reiterated that his expressivity and ornamentalism gave way to a crude heavy-handedness in these years. However, drawings like Devout People of Jerusalem at Pentecost show that the simplified effect of his late works — like the tempera and oil on panel work Judith with the head of Holofernes — were still underpinned by his signature ‘handwriting’ of expressive lines. Viewing all of Botticelli’s existing late graphic output together demonstrates an unconventional stylistic evolution towards linear abstraction, resistance to perspective and anti-naturalism — any simplification is deceptive.

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Sandro Botticelli, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1497-1500. Tempera and oil on panel. 14 ⅜ x 7 ⅞ x 2 ¾ in, (36.5 x 20 x 7 cm). Rijksmuseum. J.W.E. vom Rath Bequest, Amsterdam. Image courtesy Rijksmuseum

The show concludes with Botticelli’s last Adoration of the Magi (1475–1476). Made whilst leading his workshop, the painting remained unfinished in his studio when he died. We see it reunited for the first time in modern history with three preparatory drawings. Rendered on linen — an unusual drawing support — they accentuate how experimental and bold Botticelli was as a draughtsman towards the end of his career.

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Sandro Botticelli, Onlookers (fragment of Adoration of the Magi), c. 1500. Brush and two hues of brown ink, over black chalk, heightened with white (with a later addition), on prepared linen. 17 ⅜ x 14 ⅝ in (44.2 x 37.1 cm). The Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge / Art Resource, NY

By reuniting some of his most memorable painted masterpieces with their preparatory drawings for the first time, Botticelli Drawings offers the chance to travel through the artist’s process and explore his artistic imagination anew.

The preparatory drawing for the Louvre’s The Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist, newly attributed, is also reunited here with the resulting painting. All these unprecedented pairings offer new insight into the artist’s transformative method of composition and design process.

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Sandro Botticelli, The Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist (‘Madonna of the Rose Garden’), c. 1468. Tempera and gold on poplar panel, 35 ¾ x 26 ⅜ in. (90.7 x 67 cm). Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, inv. 286 / L 3936 © RMN-Grand Palais. Photo: Tony Querrec

Conceptualised in 2020, the exhibition took nearly four years to complete. 'Now, after all those years of dreaming and planning during COVID, it's coming to fruition', Rinaldi says. ‘We’ve found a fresh lens through which to approach to an old master. I’m excited for the show to excite a new generation of art lovers and scholars.’

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