Raphael’s Hidden Treasure, Revealed

By Mary Jo Gibson

April 15, 2015

Art Institute logo


William Gurley, geologist and paleontologist from Danville, Illinois had a secret passion; European drawings.  At its height, Gurley’s collection numbered over 6,000 pieces, which he turned into a stunning donation to the Chicago Art Institute in 1943 to commemorate his late mother, Leonora Hall Gurley. The difficulties in managing this magnitude of works is overwhelming considering the technology of the early 1940s.  It wasn’t until the 1980s that curators finally began work to thoroughly catalog the donations.  Tucked away in this treasure trove archivists found a rare sketch by Raphael, one of only a few works by this Renaissance giant known to exist in the United States.

Raphael hand

Raphael signature

The traditional attribution to Raphael was confirmed by the work’s similarity to sketches made by the master for the frescoes of the Sala di Constantino, the largest room in the papal suites at the Vatican.  There, a powerful hand similar to this sketch, offers an emphatic ceremonial gesture for a portrait of the first pope, Saint Peter.  Peter’s presence in the space strongly reinforced the idea of papal supremacy, acting as a counterweight to the undermining efforts of Martin Luther and the Reformation.  This rare chalk drawing is on a short list of Raphael’s last known drawings, done before his death in 1520 on his 37th birthday.


Saint Peter in the Sala di Costantino

For additional reading, please see this excellent resource from the Chicago Art Institute, which goes into great depth discussing the drawing, comparative art by the master, and the symbolism represented in the finished work connected to the sketch.

Raphael’s masterwork hand is displayed among the Art Institute’s possessions in the Prints and Drawings collection, on the second floor of the main building in galleries 202A-226A; a hidden gem from a massive collection of about 60,000 prints and 11,500 drawings. Only a small sample is ever on display at one time in the museum’s general galleries just off the main staircase. I have some choice pieces to share with my readers this week; Cranach, Carracci and Durer all represent their fine abilities.  The details are incredible, and I look forward to discussing them with you.

The Chicago Art Institute, voted the best museum in the world by Trip Advisor, graciously allowed me press privileges and I owe them a debt of gratitude for that kindness.  Look for more posts showcasing their exquisite collection, and a rare overview of a very special Cabinet.





Filed under April

3 responses to “Raphael’s Hidden Treasure, Revealed

  1. What a fantastic discovery. The Chicago Art Institute is high on my list of places to visit. Looking forward to more posts on the collection.

  2. Thank you Judith! I love the fact their collection is always changing and each visit is full of new discoveries.

  3. I had an incredible time keeping MJ company at the Art Institute of Chicago. Every gallery is full of amazement and the rich treasures of our collective human culture.

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