The Triumph of Galatea

Imagine being wealthy enough that you could afford to hire one of the greatest artists of all time to create a painting specifically for your home.

That was precisely the case when Agostino Chigi commissioned Raphael to create a painting for his Roman villa in 1511. 

Strong and Supple

Though Raphael had been commissioned to create the painting by Chigi, it is believed that the painter chose the subject matter as a reaction to a popular poem of the time called “Stanze per la Giostra.” 

The subject of the painting is actually based upon mythology, but Raphael chose to overlook certain aspects of the ancient stories in favor of glorifying the poem. In his painting, the central figure is a woman draped in red, standing atop a seashell. Her face is turned toward the sky, where two cupids are pointing arrows directly at her. 

All around her, commotion ensues in the water with at least seven other figures surrounding Galatea, the female figure in the center of the composition. Flesh and blue are the central colors in the palette for this famous artwork, with all of the bodies wearing little to no clothing and exposing their soft, round curves and muscles. 

The silver-gray water and the view of the sky behind them is hardly visible past the busy forefront of the painting. 

Today, The Triumph of Galatea is still viewable in the same villa for which it was designed, now known as Villa Farnesina in Rome, a vestige of Renaissance architecture and art as the walls are graced with many famous works. 

No Love Lost

The mythology upon which The Triumph of Galatea is based revolves around a love triangle involving a nymph named Galatea, a young man with whom she was in love, and a jealous cyclops who struck down the young man out of spite. This love triangle is, perhaps, depicted in the painting by the two cupids directing their arrows at Galatea’s head. 

Raphael chose to paint the moment of Galatea’s death, when she might be transported to live among divine beings as a sort of reward for bearing Earthly pain. This is why Galatea’s face, turned toward the Heavens, appears serene despite the havoc going on around her. 

The fact that Galatea is standing upon a seashell seems a nod to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, in which the Roman goddess of love is also standing on a seashell as she is shepherded to land after being born. 

One of the Greats

This oil painting and the others like it that Raphael completed were part of the Italian Renaissance, a period that valued realism and produced some of the most iconic works of art in history. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (a masterpiece also painted directly into a building) were both completed during this same period. 

Artworks of this time are marked by extreme attention to detail, careful labor with light and shadows, and an interest in conveying the human form. It was also a period where artists seemed acutely aware of the fact that every part of the painting, even the background, could convey a central theme. More than 500 years have passed since Raphael completed his famous painting The Triumph of Galatea, but the painting still earns as much (or more) admiration from viewers as ever before.