Raphael’s ‘The Madonna of the Pinks’ is MIA’s latest birthday year surprise

Courtesy of the MIA/The National Gallery, London
Raphael (Italian), 1483–1520.
The Madonna of the Pinks
(La Madonna dei Garofani), c. 1506–7.
Oil on panel (yew tree).

Resting on a ledge against a plain white wall in an otherwise empty room, it looks from a distance like something you might have picked up at Art-A-Whirl, brought home, and haven’t yet decided what to do with.

Except it’s a Raphael. The very small (about 9” x 11”), very famous, very beautiful and priceless “The Madonna of the Pinks,” more than 500 years old.

On display in the Cargill Gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through August 9 and on loan from London’s National Gallery for part of the MIA’s 100th birthday year, the painting was revealed this morning to board members, staff and donors. It’s the second of three surprise exhibitions in the museum’s “Masterpiece in Focus” series. The first was Vermeer’s “Woman Reading a Letter,” now back home at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

You’ll see “The Madonna of the Pinks” better here than you ever would in London. You’ll get closer here than there — near enough to see the soft blushes on the cheeks of the Madonna and the Christ Child, his baby-soft hair, the impossibly thin, gleaming edges of the haloes above their heads, and the translucent wisp of her veil.

Part of the plan for “Masterpiece in Focus” is to give Minnesotans quiet time with great works of art. “Since we’re a free museum,” MIA director Kaywin Feldman said, “people can actually just run in and spend ten minutes with a masterpiece all by themselves. It’s really a special experience.” There are no Raphaels in the MIA’s collections.

Named for the sprigs of pink carnations the mother is offering her child, who is seated on a pillow on her lap, “The Madonna of the Pinks” dates from 1506-7. Raphael was just 23 when he painted it, probably as a commission for a nun from a prominent family in Perugia. Its size tells us it was meant as a private devotional painting, a portable aid to prayer.

The painting has a beguiling backstory that Rachel McGarry, the MIA’s associate curator for prints and drawings, shared at the reveal. You can read it on a label on the wall when you visit. (Abbreviated version: Super-famous painting is bought by English duke. German scholar says “It’s a copy!” Disappointed Duke banishes painting to a hall in his castle. British scholar says “It’s not a copy!” Duke sells painting to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Alarmed British government bans its export. Huge public appeal raises enough cash for National Gallery to buy it.)

The Getty is welcome to visit it while it’s here at our MIA.

With the arrival of “The Madonna of the Pinks,” the “Masterpiece in Focus” series has brought us two peaceful, intimate domestic scenes. What about the third surprise, due in September? “It won’t be that,” said Patrick Noon, the MIA’s painting curator and chair. An actual hint! Stay tuned.

MinnPost photo by John Whiting
The MIA’s Rachel McGarry (second from right), associate curator of prints and drawings, with admirers of Raphael’s “Madonna of the Pinks.”

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