Art World

A groundbreaking collection of Botticelli drawings at the Legion of Honor

Sandro Botticelli. The Devout Jews at Pentecost, ca. 1505. Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt. (Photo: Wolfgang Fuhrmannek)

Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi — better known as Sandro Botticelli — is one of the most famous painters of the Renaissance era. He was a part of the aesthetic and technical advancements in 15th-century Florence and is best known for his iconic painting, Birth of Venus (ca. 1485). Botticelli’s paintings stood out for their grace and exquisite lines, but the relationship between his drawings and paintings has never been the subject of an exhibition. “Botticelli Drawings” at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco will unveil five newly attributed drawings from the artist alongside more than 60 works from more than 40 lending institutions, the majority of which have never before been on loan.


As an expert draftsman, Botticelli’s graphic style became a foundational element of his polished, lush imagery. His paintings simultaneously presented figures rendered in realism and abstraction. Human forms float in space draped in flowing gowns swirling around their bodies, seemingly free from the constraints of gravity.

As a sought-out painter of portraits and religious imagery, Botticelli was connected to the great Renaissance patrons, the Medici and Vespucci families. Pope Sixtus IV also hired Botticelli to paint frescos in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. After the political upheavals leading to the Medici’s ouster, Botticelli experienced a decline in popularity but, as evident in “Botticelli Drawings,” his graphic output from that time remains significant and illustrates an exceptionally experimental phase for the artist.


While Botticelli enjoyed mass popularity for his portrait paintings, his preparatory drawings elevated the line as the primary force behind his figures, and the exhibition features 27 of these drawings. The painting The Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist (ca. 1468–80) will be on display with its newly attributed preparatory drawing.

Virgin and Child epitomizes the classic Botticelli flow of surface — a dark, flattened backdrop of foliage and trees frames the figures represented in stylized curls of hair and twisting fabric, while John the Baptist’s eyes glance toward us, the viewers.

The unprecedented pairings continue with brushed drawings on linen and the resulting painting, The Adoration of the Magi (1475–76), with the holy family depicted under a classical temple surrounded by worshippers in vibrant robes.


Botticelli’s unconventional stylistic evolution toward linear abstraction and antinaturalism, along with a resistance to perspective, took him to a more experimental phase in his later years. Judith with the Head of Holofernes (ca. 1497–1500) tells the story from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith, and represents the triumph of virtue over evil. Judith’s unnaturally elongated figure emerges from a dark interior shrouded in a crimson veil. She is followed by a ghostlike, faceless being while Judith, wielding a sword, regards the severed head of Holofernes.

The Devout Jews at Pentecost (ca. 1505) is composed in black chalk, pen and brown ink, and a wash highlighted with gouache. The artist’s expert draftsmanship informs the hard-lined perspective of the building. The counterpoint to these geometrics are the swooping diagonals of cloth draping the figures in the foreground, many with their backs facing the viewer, which add to the unorthodoxy of the composition.

“‘Botticelli Drawings’ reunites this beloved artist’s graphic output as a whole for the first time, a challenging endeavor given the rarity and fragility of these works,” noted Furio Rinaldi, curator of prints and drawings at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Forty-two 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.”


Designed to be in conversation with “Botticelli Drawings” is an exhibition drawn from the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts: “Drawing the Line: From Michelangelo to Asawa,” on view through Feb. 23. This exhibition consists of rarely seen works and masterpieces by beloved artists, including the treasured work L’Arlesienne (Madame Ginoux) (1888), a large-scale portrait by Paul Gaugin, on view for the first time in more than a decade, in addition to works by August Rodin, Richard Diebenkorn, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Willem de Kooning, and others.

Botticelli Drawings: Tue.–Sun., 9:30 a.m.–5:15 p.m. Nov. 19–Feb. 11, 2024 – $32, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., 415-750-3600,

Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at

Sandro Botticelli, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, ca. 1497–1500. (IMAGE COURTESY OF RIJKSMUSEUM, J.W.E. VOM RATH BEQUEST, AMSTERDAM.)
Sandro Botticelli, The Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist (Madonna of the Rose Garden), ca. 1468. (IMAGE COURTESY OF MUSÉE DU LOUVRE, DÉPARTEMENT DES PEINTURES © RMN-GRAND PALAIS. PHOTO: TONY QUERREC)
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