Botticelli Drawings presents the beloved Renaissance artist like never before

Jan 31, 2023

Sandro Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli. Study of the head of a woman in profile ("La Bella Simonetta") (recto); Study of the figure of Minerva (verso)," ca. 1485. Metalpoint, white gouache on light-brown prepared paper (recto), black chalk, pen and brown ink, brown wash, white gouache (verso). 13 7/16 x 9 1/16 in. (34.2 x 23 cm.)

The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. Bequeather by Francis Douce, 1834. ©️ Ashmolean Museum

Major exhibition draws together the complete graphic output of one of the world’s most famous artists for the first time

Legion of Honor \ November 19, 2023–February 11, 2024

SAN FRANCISCO – A quintessential artist of the Italian Renaissance, Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi—better known as Sandro Botticelli—has had an enduring influence on contemporary culture, from art and design to dance, music, fashion, and film. Known for some of the world’s greatest paintings, from La Primavera (1477–1482) to the Birth of Venus (1485–1486), Botticelli has inspired the likes of artists Andy Warhol, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Cindy Sherman, among others. He was an expert draftsman, creating drawings that underlie and animate his greatest compositions. Although key to the aesthetic driving his continued relevance and popularity, there has been no major exhibition dedicated to Botticelli’s art of drawing—until now. Reuniting rare works from across the United States and Europe, Botticelli Drawings—presented exclusively at the Legion of Honor—is the first exhibition to explore the central role that drawing played in Botticelli’s art and workshop practice. Anchored by extensive research by Furio Rinaldi, curator of prints and drawings at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the exhibition unveils five newly attributed drawings alongside more than 60 works from 39 lending institutions. Pairing Botticelli’s graphic output as a whole from the Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence; British Museum, London; and The Morgan Library & Museum, New York alongside key paintings on loan from The National Gallery, London; the Galleria Borghese, Rome; and the Musée du Louvre, Paris, Botticelli Drawings offers a rare opportunity to explore the artistic process behind such renowned works as The Adoration of the Magi (1475–1476), reunited here with three preparatory designs. 

“Botticelli’s paintings are world-renowned for their grace and exquisite line, but the relationship between his drawings and paintings has never been fully investigated,” remarked Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Now, in this stunning and groundbreaking exhibition, the majority of Botticelli’s graphic output takes us below the surface of the paintings to illuminate the artist’s creative process, from conception and development to final execution.”

The art of drawing underwent major functional changes and technical advancements in 15th-century Florence. Among the first artists to make draftsmanship central to his aesthetic and design practice, Botticelli developed a new visual style for the era, elevating the line as the primary force behind his figures and their rhythmic movement. Striking a delicate balance between realistically portraying individual subjects and abstracting their features, Botticelli created portraits that have endured through centuries as potent symbols of beauty. A prolific portraitist, he made a practice of drawing from life, one that would become an artistic standard in Renaissance Florence and beyond. Yet despite the centrality of drawing to Botticelli’s work, less than three dozen confirmed drawings by the artist survive today. The hardships he experienced later in life, including penury and the decline of his workshop business, may have led to the loss of the vast majority of Botticelli’s graphic output.

Botticelli Drawings features 27 drawings by the artist, exploring the medium as his primary form of artistic expression. The incredible rarity and fragility of these works precludes frequent travel, and many are leaving their lending institutions for the very first time in modern history solely for this exhibition. The result of original, exacting research, the exhibition unveils five newly attributed drawings by Botticelli. The preparatory drawing for the Louvre’s The Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist (ca. 1468–1480), newly attributed, is reunited here with the resulting painting. Other unprecedented pairings, such as the brush drawings on linen—divided between the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, and the Morgan Library & Museum in New York—with the resulting painting of The Adoration of the Magi (1475–1476, Uffizi), offer insight into the artist's transformative method of composition and design process. Departing from the standard interpretation of Botticelli’s later years as a period of decline marred by successive political upheavals in the wake of the Medici’s ouster, the exhibition rethinks the artist’s works from the 1490s and 1500s as one of his most experimental phases yet. The Museums’ presentation will offer a new lens through which to consider the artist’s unconventional stylistic evolution toward linear abstraction, resistance to perspective, and anti-naturalism.

Botticelli Drawings reunites this beloved artist’s graphic output as a whole for the very first time, a challenging endeavor given the rarity and fragility of these works,” noted Furio Rinaldi. “39 public and private institutions have staunchly supported this exhibition with unique loans, contributing drawings from their collections, the majority of which have never before left their lending institutions. This exhibition offers a truly unique opportunity to see and understand Botticelli’s thought and design process leading to the making of his memorable masterpieces.” 

The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalog (copublished by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Yale University Press) by organizing curator Furio Rinaldi, offering the first systematic study of Botticelli’s graphic output and the underdrawing of his paintings. Botticelli Drawings is a celebration of the artist’s quest for the perfect line, expressing the centrality of draftsmanship in the history of human creativity. 

Exhibition Organization 

Botticelli Drawings is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Presenting Sponsors are John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn, Diane B. Wilsey, and Barbara A. Wolfe. Major Support is provided by Roger Thomas and Arthur Libera and WOLFGANG RATJEN STIFTUNG, Liechtenstein. Significant Support is provided by Gretchen B. Kimball. Generous Support comes from Bettina S. Bryant, Christie’s, The Harris Family, Edina Jennison, Samuel H. Kress Foundation, The Robert Lehman Foundation, Maria Manetti Shrem, Lynn and Edward Poole, Mary Sauer, Robert Doris, and Annie Doris, The Tavolozza Foundation, David Wollenbarg, and Zenni. Additional support is provided by The Achenbach Graphic Arts Council, Luanne and Pete Andreotti, Alexandria and Dwight Ashdown, Sandra Bessières, Consulate General of Italy in San Francisco, Robert Dance, Stanlee Gatti, Italian Cultural Institute San Francisco, Wendy W. Kwok and family, Moretti Fine Art LD, Jan and Bob Newman, Christina Ongerth, and Parida Saennam, Austin Ligon, Sheila Wishek, and Andrea Woodner. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

About Sandro Botticelli 

One of the world’s most famous and beloved artists, Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (Florence, ca. 1445–1510), known as Sandro Botticelli, epitomizes the flowering of the Renaissance in 15th-century Italy. Botticelli established his reputation and prosperous business from the late 1460s, as painter of portraits and religious images (notably, Madonnas). Yet it is his frescoes in the Vatican and a series of mythological pictures in the 1480s, distinguished by narrative ambiguity and sensual appeal—from La Primavera to The Birth of Venus—that ignited Botticelli’s later revival and ensured his continued popularity today. The quest for beauty and poetic ideas that underlie his art moved Botticelli to the highest hierarchies of the Medici family, which unofficially ruled Florence at the time. Much of his work is imbued with the philosophic ideas of the Florentine neo-Platonists surrounding Lorenzo the Magnificent, his most prominent patron, and later by the feverish spirituality of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who took Florence by storm preaching against the rampant corruption of the Church. 

About the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts 

Covering the development of graphic arts from the 14th century to today, the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts (AFGA) is the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s department of works on paper. It houses and stewards the most extensive collection in the western United States, with more than 90,000 works of art, including prints, drawings, photographs, and artists’ books. Selections from the collection are exhibited in dedicated galleries at the de Young and Legion of Honor. The collection is also available for research and study by appointment in the George and Leanne Roberts Seminar Room at the Legion of Honor. 

The foundation is named for Moore and Hazel Achenbach, who gave the core of their collection to the City of San Francisco in 1948 and the remainder upon Mr. Achenbach’s passing in 1963. The department is the repository of a number of archives, including the archive of the Bay Area’s Crown Point Press and Paulson Fontaine Press, and the graphic works of the Los Angeles–based artist Ed Ruscha. It houses the Anderson Graphic Arts Collection and the Reva and David Logan Collection of Illustrated Books, together with significant holdings of Japanese prints, theater and dance designs, and an important group of Works Project Administration (WPA) prints and drawings allocated by the Federal Art Project. 

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young museum, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States.

The Legion of Honor was modeled after the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. The museum, designed by George Applegarth, opened in 1924 on a bluff in Lincoln Park overlooking the Golden Gate. It offers unique insight into the art historical, political, and social movements of the previous 4,000 years of human history, with holdings including ancient art from the Mediterranean basin; European painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; and the largest collection of works on paper in the American West.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco respectfully acknowledge the Ramaytush Ohlone, the original inhabitants of what is now the San Francisco Peninsula, and we further acknowledge that the greater Bay Area is the ancestral territory of the Miwok, Yokuts, and Patwin, as well as other Ohlone peoples. Indigenous communities have lived in and moved through this land over hundreds of generations and Indigenous peoples from many nations make their home in this region today. Please join us in recognizing and honoring their ancestors, descendants, elders, and all other members of their communities.

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Robyn Day \ Publicist \ \ 415-750-3554