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Celebrated Raphael Madonna to go on show at Norton Simon Museum in time for holidays

August 16, 2010 |  9:00 am

Twomadonnas

When the media-savvy, sales-record-shattering British art dealer Joseph Duveen sold Raphael’s "Small Cowper Madonna" to an American collector in 1914 for an amount over $500,000, and possibly as much as $700,000, the New York Herald called it "the most important single art transaction ever undertaken."

Now that painting of a golden-haired Madonna and Child, which belongs to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, is getting ready for a vacation in California. The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena will be exhibiting the work (above right) for a three-month period starting in November as part of an exchange program it established in 2007 with the Frick Collection and the National Gallery. 

For other museums, borrowing an Old Masters painting -- or several -- is business as usual. At the Norton Simon, which makes a mission of showcasing its own collection and very rarely borrows or loans artworks, a loan like this is celebrated as an event. In the fall of 2008, when the museum showed Vermeer’s “A Lady Writing,” also from the National Gallery, attendance spiked by 39%.

This time, said chief curator Carol Togneri, the Norton Simon's choice is a Raphael painting, because of its ties to the museum's own Raphael, also a Madonna and Child. “It will be riveting to compare the two paintings because they came at such a crucial, early time in Raphael’s career,” Togneri said

The Norton Simon painting dates to 1502-03, while the "Small Cowper Madonna" was painted closer to 1505, when the artist was 22 years old. A native of Urbino, Italy, Raphael likely painted the second picture in Florence, where he first encountered works by Michelangelo, Fra Bartolomeo and Leonardo da Vinci. 

“You can see Raphael stepping outside of his comfortable, secure world in the paintings,” Togneri said, singling out the "Cowper Madonna" as the more adventurous of the two. “The baby there is a little more active, a little more childlike, and there’s more activity in the landscape as well.” 

Other art historians have paid attention to the powerful yet graceful rendering of the mother’s hands in the "Cowper Madonna." Meanwhile, doctors have written about the dorsiflexion of the child’s big toe caused by pressure to the sole, an example of what’s known as Babinksi’s reflex.

The Cowper painting, named such because its first known owner was the third Earl Cowper, George Nassau Clavering-Cowper, remained with the Cowper family in Britain until 1913, when it was sold to Joseph Duveen’s gallery, Duveen Brothers. He placed it the following year with the American collector Peter A.B. Widener -- a transaction celebrated in this country but lamented abroad -- at a time when ships were doing brisk business transporting artwork across the Atlantic to America.

In 1942, Widener’s son, Joseph, donated the painting to the National Gallery. Since then, it has only been loaned out once, to a museum in Urbino. The painting will be on view at the Pasadena museum from Nov. 5 to Jan. 24, making the most of Christmas and Rose Bowl crowds. 

-- Jori Finkel
www.twitter.com/jorifinkel

Left photo: "Madonna and Child with Book," circa 1502-03. Credit: Norton Simon Art Foundation

Right photo: The "Small Cowper Madonna," circa 1505. Credit: National Gallery of Art

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