(b. 1483, Urbino, d. 1520, Roma)

The Three Graces

Oil on panel, 17 x 17 cm
Musée Condé, Chantilly

The figurative powers which Raphael developed in Florence led to a more synthetic conception of form, a refinement of intellectual expression, which are visible in the Knight's Dream in the National Gallery, London, and the Three Graces of Chantilly. Critics believe that the two panels may have formed a single diptych presented to Scipione di Tommaso Borghese at his birth, in 1493. The theme of the paintings may by drawn from the poem, Punica, by Silius Italicus, which was well known in antiquity and which humanistic culture restored to fame. In the first panel, Scipio, the sleeping knight, must choose between Venus (pleasure) and Minerva (virtue); in the second, the Graces reward his choice of virtue with the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. The classical origin of this theme brings us back without doubt to the Florentine environment. The composition, which is dominated by a sense of great harmony, is a figurative consequence of the literary theme.

Three Graces are the personification of grace and beauty and the attendants of several goddesses. In art they are often the handmaidens of Venus, sharing several of her attributes such as the rose, myrtle, apple and dice. Their names according to Hesoid (Theogony 905) were Aglaia, Euphrosyne and Thalia. They are typically grouped so that the two outer figures face the spectator, the one in the middle facing away. This was their antique form, known and copied by the Renaissance.

The group has been the subject of much allegorising in different ages. Seneca (c. 4 B.C.-A.D. 65) (De Beneficiis l.3:2) described them as smiling maidens, nude or transparently clothed, who stood for the threefold aspect of generosity, the giving, receiving and returning of gifts, or benefits: "ut una sit quae det beneficium, altera quae accipiat, tertia quae reddat." The Florentine humanist philosophers of the 15th century saw them as three phases of love: beauty, arousing desire, leading to fulfillment; alternatively as the personification of Chastity, Beauty and Love, perhaps with the inscription "Castitas, Pulchritudo, Amor."

The Three Graces is Raphael's first study of the female nude in both front and back views. It was probably not based on living models, however, but on the classical sculpture group of the Three Graces in Siena.