"Sublime Beauty:
Raphael's 'Portrait
of a Lady with a Unicorn'"

By: Italian Renaissance painter, draftsman and architect Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known as Raphael (1483–1520)
What it is: A one-painting exhibition
Produced by: The exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Cincinnati Art Museum in collaboration with the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture and the Galleria Borghese. The painting, on view in the United States for the first time, is on loan from the Galleria Borghese in Rome, where it was first recorded in the collection in 1682.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays
Through: April 10, 2016
Where: The Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park, at 100 34th Avenue, San Francisco
Tickets: $10 adults, $7 seniors, $8 college students with ID, $6 youth 13–17, free for children 12 and under; no additional fee for this special exhibition
Information: Visit or call 1-415-750-3600

Lady with a Unicorn
Galleria Borghese, Rome
Raphael's "Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn" is on view at The Legion of Honor in San Francisco, through April 10, 2016.
Raphael's 'Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn' visits from Italy for the first time in its 500 years
See this masterful High Renaissance painting
at the De Young Museum in San Francisco
January 19, 2016

Art lovers will be paying homage to Raphael's "Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn" at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco through April 10.

This is the work's first trip to the United States, the equivalent of a papal visit for devout Catholics. A pilgrimage to see this exquisite painting requires going backward in time through European art history from Baroque and Rococo to Renaissance and Medieval periods, through five galleries presenting art from the Legion of Honor's collection.

The image in oil glows within the deep red of the gallery at the end of a long wing of the museum. The painting commands the space, the only work in the gallery, set like an altarpiece and hung slightly higher than usual for easier viewing by crowds of devotees. The painting of a blond beauty holding a unicorn in her lap is flanked by informational panels on surrounding walls.

Those panels touch on Raphael's life as an artist; explore the identity of the sitter and the symbolism in the work, especially the unicorn; illustrate Leonardo' da Vinci's influence on this work; and present a fascinating timeline for the artwork.

This masterpiece, just over two feet high, demonstrates the genius of Raphael (1483–1520), who along with Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) and Michelangelo (1475–1564) moved art to its apogee of classical beauty, humanist ideals and a full awakening from the Middle Ages. These three artists are credited with creating the Italian High Renaissance.

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Raphael observed Leonardo's and Michelangelo's works and built on their accomplishments. Raphael's paintings are treasured for their idealized beauty, elegant figures, fluid movement, graceful gestures, exceptional detail and clarity of form. Raphael's images are lighter in chromatic and emotional tone that his predecessors' work.

No museum in this region can boast even one painting by Raphael, Michelangelo or Leonardo in its collection. This single-painting traveling exhibition represents a rare opportunity to experience Raphael's masterful work in Northern California. While the subject is secular, commissioned to celebrate a wedding, it reminds us of the many Madonna and child images for which Raphael is best known.

The accompanying book and timeline

A book accompanying the exhibition presents two conflicting theories on the sitter's identity. The mystery of the woman portrayed is fodder for scholarly research and argument, but the story of the work's discovery and conservation is of greater interest to me. I'd love to watch a documentary that fleshes out the chronology outlined on the gallery wall.

The timeline starts with the painting's creation in 1505–06 and its addition to the Borghese family's collection through marriage in 1638, over-painting in the late 1600s to represent a saint and then the work's attribution to several other artists over three centuries. That's the first half of the timeline.

The second half presents a 20th-century saga for the work that starts with the recognition of "the hands of two artists at work in the painting" followed by experts attributing the original work to Raphael. After that, there was detailed study and testing of the work, restoration that included removing the paint from its wooden backing, removal of the over-painting, conservation to stabilize the work and finally further X-ray study indicating Raphael's previous inclusion of a dog in the sitter's lap, replaced by the unicorn.

More Renaissance art on view

If you want to extend your Renaissance experience, visit the Legion of Honor's small gallery on the lower level dedicated to illustrated books. There you will see "The World in a Book: 'The Nuremberg Chronicle' and the Art of German Renaissance Illustration." This enlightening display presents the famous "Nuremberg Chronicle" (printed in 1493) alongside a selection of its illustrations of city views and biblical imagery plus bound copies and single leafs from other important publications from the late 15th and early 16th centuries. This tightly focused exhibition, on view through May 1, 2016, is also included with general admission.

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Raphael gallery
Pei Ketron photo
Raphael's "Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn" is on view at The Legion of Honor in San Francisco, through April 10, 2016, in a one-artwork exhibit. This photograph was made during a media preview. It is likely the area will be more crowded now that the exhibit has opened.


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