As The School of Athens marks Raphael’s high point in deep-space composition, Madonna of the Chair is in several ways his best Madonna and his best easel-picture. To judge its progress over earlier works, there is abundant material here for comparison.
Madonna of the Goldfinch (1447 in the Uffizi) is a typical example of his early, sweetly sentimental style, be-loved by the public but anathema to sophisticated tastes. It has nothing to offer but pretty, smiling faces and tender attitudesno color, no design but the conventional pyramid; a stereotyped, feathery landscape taken from `Perugino; drab flesh tints and wooden drapery. Madonna del Baldacchino (165 Pitti) is the same thing on a larger scale, developed into a more complex altar-piece of dead, conventional symmetry, bald and insensitive in modelling. It is inferior in every way to Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna of the Harpies (1577 Uffizi), a formal altar-piece of similar plan. The Granduca Madonna of Raphael (178 Pitti) is refreshingly simple and straightforward. It makes no pretense at decorative form at all, but frankly offers its conception of the perfect mother and child, unornamented, against a plain black background. But its modelling with soft shadows is a weaker version of Leonardo, and its ideal face the bland, seraphic half-smile, the perfect oval countenance on which no earthly passion has left the marks of experience is interesting chiefly as an expression of the Christian ideal.
Returning to the Madonna of the Chair after these comparisons, one finds no radical change, but a considerable enrichment of the form from a visual standpoint. The de-sign is simple but rhythmic, unified and unhackneyed. It is essentially a sculptural relief, in shallow space, well adapted to the circular frame. Two U-shaped masses fit together: the mother’s head and arm, and the child’s whole body. Brighter lighting and garments of yellow, red and green accent these parts and further knit them together. The mother’s head is one of a series of smaller, rounded masses, scattered about the edge as a secondary theme; the rest are the other two heads, the mother’s blue-clad knees and the chair-back. Duller lighting and coloring subordinate all but the two principal faces. The head of St. John is quite Venetian in surface. The other flesh and cloth textures are still rather hard by Venetian standards, especially the blue, but considerably warmer and richer than in Raphael’s early works. In this regard, it is the superior of any of his paintings except The Veiled Lady (245 Pitti) and some parts of the Sistine Madonna at Dresden.
In addition, it retains the perfect oval faces and the tender sentiment of his youthful work. These are qualities which repel some observers as much as they attract others. But they are less exaggerated here than in his earlier pictures; less so than in the Sistineless artificially simpering; more genuine, mature and restrained. No basic human value like these can be dogmatically condemned in painting. They become undeniable faults only when carried to extremes, and unsupported by a sound basis in form.