My favourite painting: David Cannadine

'...more memorable and exquisite than his celebrated Madonnas.'

Saint George and the Dragon, about 1506, by Raphael (1483–1520), 11¼in by 8½in, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

David Cannadine says:
It was during the early 1970s that I have first visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and encountered Raphael’s masterpiece, which seemed to me more memorable and exquisite than his celebrated Madonnas. A quarter of a century later, I found myself writing the life of Andrew W. Mellon, the Pittsburgh banker and industrialist who founded and funded the National Gallery of Art and also donated to it his own collection of paintings. In 1930–31, that collection was fabulously enhanced when Mellon, at that time Secretary to the United States Treasury, acquired some of the greatest paintings from the Hermitage, sold off by the Soviets, who were desperate for dollars. This was one of the finest of them and, during the course of my researches, it was thrilling to discover the documentation of this extraordinary sale—an appropriate transaction for such an extraordinary work of art.

John McEwen comments on Saint George and the Dragon:
Raphael (Santi) was born in Urbino, son of Giovanni Santi, a court painter to Frederico da Montelfeltro,
Duke of Urbino. Urbino, under Duke Frederico, became a centre of humanist scholarship and artistic excellence. Raphael was familiar with this world when orphaned at 11. He entered the workshop of the Umbrian master Pietro Perugino and is referred to as a master himself by 1500, the earliest mention of him, witness to his renown as a prodigy. With Leonardo and Michelangelo, he formed the artistic triumvirate of the High Renaissance, a stylistic period that barely survived his premature and much lamented death.

This portable painting on wood was commissioned by Duke Frederico’s successor and Raphael’s patron, Guidobaldo da Montelfeltro, as a gift for the emissary, Sir Gilbert Talbot, to present to Henry VII of England, who had made Guidobaldo a member of the English Order of the Garter. St George is the order’s patron saint. Raphael displayed the garter on the saint’s leg. It is identifiable by ‘HONI’, first word of its motto (Honi soit qui mal y pense—Disgraced be he who thinks ill of it). Like his father, Guidobaldo was a condottiero or warlord. Henry’s gift was to salute the Duke’s cultural and military status rather than to thank him for a specific favour.

The picture was sold during the Commonwealth in one of the sales of the Royal Collection. Catherine the Great subsequently bought it and, until its sale by the Soviets to the American collector Andrew Mellon in 1931, it was one of the most revered pictures in the Imperial Hermitage Collection.

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