The beauty of Botticelli

April 5, 2024


Sometimes, an artist brings his era alive in such a beautiful and vivid way that you’re left wanting more. Such is the case with Botticelli, whose drawings (and some paintings) were on display at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum recently. I thought you might like to see a little of what we saw, along with some of my thoughts on Botticelli and his work.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was an early Renaissance painter (some would say late Renaissance, but I’ll leave let art experts quibble about the details) whose reputation didn’t take off until the late 1800s, when the pre-Raphaelites “discovered” him.  Looking at these beautiful pieces, I had to wonder why it took so long.

I always supposed painters sat down and put brush to canvas without any preparation. How wrong was I! Botticelli did painstakingly detailed studies of his paintings before brush ever touched canvas. The facial features. The way a robe folded. The positioning of each person in the frame. All of this was worked out well in advance.

Take Head of a Man in Near Profile Looking Left (ca 1468-1479). The museum tells us that this head study can be directly linked to one of the onlookers in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi. As a student, the artist learned to master the play of light and rendering of full forms for these studies. And we saw quite a few studies in this exhbition.

And here is the onlooker, close up, in the finished painting.

Like most Renaissance painters, Botticelli’s subjects were mythology and religion.. Topics like The Annunciation were painted over and over in different views.

As another example of how he worked out his subjects in drawing well before he painted, them note this Head of a Woman in Near Profile Looking Down to the Left (ca 1468-1470) Experts believe it was likely prep for the face of a Virgin, perhaps in the painting, Virgin and Child with the Young St. John the Baptist, then reused for other paintings. It’s notable for its graceful example of feminine beauty, the museum’s notes tell us. I love looking at it.

Can you see the likeness, below?


Here is Virgin and Child with the Young St. John the Baptist, 1465-1470.

These Renaissance artists were incredibly proficient in many media. I thought you might like to see something a little different:

Torso of Hermes, Roman 2nd Century AD After Polykleitos (Greek, ca. 490–425 BC).

In my travels through Italy I’ve seen so many Renaissance paintings. Yet, I never tire of looking into each face and wondering about the women (especially) who lived back then. What their short lives were like. If their attire really was as gracefully beautiful as painters depict. If the rooms the inhabited were as luxurious.

A painting like this, below, really gets my attention. She’s not conventionally beautiful, and yet she’s incredibly striking. Who is she and what is she looking at outside the shuttered window? I want to know more and since at that moment, I don’t, my imagination runs wild. And isn’t that what great art does? Allows our imaginations to soar?

I read that the circle was considered a symbol of perfection–almost divine, to Renaissance painters. Which is why we see so much of it in that era’s art. That geometric perfection also represented the perfection of God.


And again:


This study below caught my eye. I love the whole thing: the tone of the frame and the drawing. But then, look closer at the second image:


It’s a great view of how the artist roughed out his character before painting it. And again, I think about how this one came about. Was there a model? Or did this bearded man simply appear in Botticelli’s imagination?

This is Botticelli’s last painting, Adoration of the Magi. He did not finish it.

Botticelli’s later work reflected the tenor of the times, and he became a follower of the strict monk, Savaonarola.  He gave up painting because of it, and without another means of making a living, died penniless.

There is so much to say about this painter and his work. I’m just an art-lover, no expert, so I leave that to those who know far more than I.

I just know that sitting in a gallery musing on life depicted in paintings more than 600 years old is a peaceful joy I hope everyone tries. And maybe this gave you a little bit of that today.

9 comments on “The beauty of Botticelli
  1. Lauren says:

    Just beautiful. The art and your words. Thanks for the deep dive.

  2. Laurie Stone says:

    Exquisite. I love how these old paintings are like traveling in a time machine. Fascinating to see how people acted and dressed back then.

  3. Loved this. All creatives have their own processes, but process always fascinates me. Thanks for sharing some insight into this artist’s process.

  4. Alana says:

    I love looking at art from centuries ago. I wonder about the people, and their hairstyles and clothes.I’ve seen artists in other mediums at work at art trails and seen how much preparation goes into one work. It’s certainly a talent I don’t possess.

  5. Beth Havey says:

    Carol, I you have seen most of these works while traveling, how wonderful. Many of them are new to me, though growing up, we had a large book with many reproductions and some of the are thus familiar to me. Your analysis is wonderful. And so many of these artists had to secure a corpse to study the human body, ligaments, bones, veins etc. Art was not easy. Art was a force that has come down to us through the ages. Thanks.

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