Four Centuries of Portraits by Masters, Including Memling, Cranach, Parmigianino, Ribera, Rubens, Van Dyck and David
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, January 23 – March 27, 2011
Catalogue Eye to Eye: European Portraits 1450–1850
by Richard Rand and Kathleen Morris
with an essay by David Ekserdjian
Published by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, and distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven and London
The Clark usually manages to show at least one exhibition from an important private collection every year, and for us, the public, this is surely one of its healthiest policies. The Clark, after all, originated from a private collection, an idiosyncratic one, as the best private collections usually are, and the professionals who have been responsible for it since have made an effort remain true to the vision of the founders. Even after the Manton Bequest, a rather different, but compatible private collection, the atmosphere and ethos remain the same. To host distinguished private collections of a variety of different sorts is both an hommage to the initiative of the Clarks and an open window on different worlds, some of which, like the selection from the Steiner Collection of old master drawings, have found their way into the permanent collection. Others come and go, enriching the galleries for a few months, then leaving them open for other guests. I can think of few other institutions where such exhibitions seem so much like polite hospitality.
The present exhibition is an unusual one, consisting entirely of European portraits from the Renaissance through the earlier nineteenth century. These make up the major part, but not the entirety, of a collection which includes still life and portraiture, as well as remarkable bronzes and marbles. Portraiture, ranked second only to history painting in the academic hierarchy, is essential to any but highly specialized collections of paintings and drawings, but one rarely sees a collection so much focused on a genre which is underestimated today, partly because portraiture, especially in painting, is for all intents and purposes a dead art. Without really doing justice to a complex issue and risking seeming like a reactionary philistine, I’ll try to explain what I mean. Even in photography, the formal portrait is on the wane, as digital imagery floods the world with millions of do-it-yourself images of girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, children, college buddies, bosses, polticians, and so forth. The act of visiting the local photography studio, if there still is one, seems an arduous endeavor, and commissioning a portrait from a painter seems like outrageous hybris to most people, even people who can afford it. If you are invited over to someone’s house and find a run-of-the-mill portrait of the chatelaine hanging over the mantlepiece, don’t you think that’s just a bit tacky? On the other hand, where are our Sickerts, Sargents, and Johnses, or our Steichens, Penns, and Avedons? Painters and photographers who can make a portrait that in any way transcends the mean circumstances of its immediate function have all but disappeared. There was a separation between the portrait as art and the portrait as record and status symbol. Stieglitz in photography and Bacon in painting may be seen as instigators and examples of this sea-change. There are other compelling psychological and social forces behind the phenomenon, but that would bring us too far away from this handsome exhibition of twenty-nine paintings and one marble relief.
I can’t stress it enough, that the kind of portraiture you will see in this exhibition is no longer practiced on this earth. David Ekserdjian invokes the standard of the realistic portrait, the representation that preserves the likeness of a person, ideally a famous, wealthy, or powerful personage, in his reference to “King Jayavarman VII, who ruled Cambodia from 1181 to around 1215,” whose features were accurately recorded at a time when this kind of portraiture was not practised in Europe. By 1965, a man or woman of taste would far prefer to be painted by Francis Bacon than by Annigoni. Of course artists and sitters still go through the motions, but have you seen any contemporary portrait of a conventional kind — that is, of a person prepared and dressed for public intercourse — that shows any of the representational vivacity in the painting of clothes, jewellery, and physiognomy, not to mention the psychological and spiritual aliveness of these portraits? This leads one to the question whether these artists were painting for the present or for the future. In one sense the answer is obvious. The artists were painting for money, and money is, for an artist, usually a present necessity. But what about the sitter’s point of view? Marriages often called for portraits, and one might argue that such portraits were both for the present and the future. Were the sitters at the time thinking of heirs, and the dusty portrait galleries in their country estates four centuries in the future? Many of the portraits in this collection are of attractive young people. The sitters knew well how rapidly youthful beauty fades, and how suddenly death may cut it short. In certain parts of Europe one might well find a memento mori in the same room as one of these glowing portraits.
While you’ll find many famous names on the object labels in this exhibition (as well as some lesser ones and some works that remain unattributed), it won’t take long for you to realize that the collector was more interested in the quality of each work of art per se, than in great names. The collector has acquired what he loves. Therefore you shouldn’t expect to find a comprehensive representation of portraiture in all its varieties. The flamboyant display portraits of the French baroque (e.g. Largillière et al.) are notably absent, as are pastels, and every type of portrait specifically associated with drawing. Neither are the English portraitists represented here, although van Dyck’s portrait of his mistress, Margaret Lemon, was made in England. There are, of course, too many varieties of portraiture for comprehensiveness to make sense to a private collector, and for that matter I am unaware of any museum that has tried to build a truly systematic collection.* On the other hand, there is something more, a fascination with the presence, character, and personal aura of the human individual, and that is what will make your visit such a life-enhancing experience.
David Ekserdjian’s elegant and engaging introductory essay in the catalogue brings to life the sheer pleasure of viewing and collecting these works of art, as well as the circumstances they have passed through on their way to this collector’s walls. They have languished in corridors and storerooms, eventually to be considered by their owners, then perhaps examined by an expert from one of the auction houses, then perused by dealers who have in some cases restored them, exhibited them, and sold them to the collector. Along the way, scholars like Dr. Ekserdjian, experts, journalists, other collectors and the public have examined them — all quite an active social life for a painting! Without ever being very specific (Richard Rand and Kathleen Morris have taken admirable care of that in their catalogue entries.), Ekserdjian’s essay conjures up a vivid sense of all the conversations that have taken place around these portraits. People have wondered about the materials they were made from, the identity of the sitters, the arrangement of their hair, the fabrication of a piece of jewellery, or a dress…and of course the artist. The attribution remains the ultimate question, although not in every instance, as the pleasing anonymous works in the exhibition demonstrate.
In the entrance to the exhibition the collector sets a firm foot in history with three early Netherlandish portraits. The Portrait of Anthony of Burgundy (c. 1465) from the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden (Tournai c. 1399 – Brussels 1464) and the Memling (Seligenstadt 1430–40 – Bruges 1494) Portrait of a Man in a Black Cap (c. 1470-75) bring us close to the beginnings of portrait painting in Europe, which is attributed to Jan van Eyck (c. 1395 – Bruges 1441) and to Rogier’s master, Robert Campin (c. 1375–9 – Tournai, 1444), who is often identified with the Master of Flémalle, the anonymous author of a group of undeniably great paintings essential in the initial development of the Renaissance style in the North. The Portrait of Anthony of Burgundy was long thought to be an autograph work of Rogier’s, but Lorne Campbell, writing in 1972 and 1979, demoted it to the workshop on the basis of its lack of three-dimensional space and subtlety of modelling. It is a secondary variant of a portrait of Anthony universally accepted as Rogier’s own work in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, in which he wears a conical red cap and carries an arrow with the point next to his heart. Interestingly, this portrait was in the collection of the renowned Australian art patron, James Fairfax, from 1999 until 2009, when the present owner acquired it. Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen’s ( c. 1472/77 – 1533) Portrait of Jan Gerritsz. van Egmond van de Nijenburg (c. 1518–20), highly ornamental and strong in characterization, was painted over a generation later, close in time to the northern Italian Head of a Man (c. 1510–15) attributed to Dosso Dossi (c. 1486 – Ferrara 1542). This is one of the most appealing works in the show, the attribution to the Ferrarese master, Dosso Dossi, is not at all unconvincing. Although Dosso is best known for his later allegorical and mythological paintings, which show a strong Mannerist influence, he began, according to the stylistic evidence of his earliest paintings (those dated between 1512 and 1518), under the influence of Giorgione. This moody head study is in that vein. The random brushstrokes in the face and blue tunic, and the white highlights around the collar of his shirt represent an intelligent attempt to assimiliate Giorgione’s technique in the artist’s own robust fashion. The Portrait of a Young Man holding a Dog and a Cat in the Ashmolean, which is catalogued as attributed to Dosso Dossi, as far as one can tell from an online image, shows similar handling of the facial contours and the white highlights, as well as a common mood. The two paintings may stand or fall as Dosso together.
Parmigianino (1503–1540), Portrait of a Man, c. 1530, oil on canvas.
We pass by a marble relief of a youth attributed to Baccio Bandinelli to enter the Italian Renaissance room, which not only contains some of the finest works in the exhibition, including a Portrait of a Girl Holding a Bouquet of Flowers (c. 1570-80), attributed variously to Girolamo Macchietti (1535–1592) and Santi di Tito and the Portrait of a Young Woman (c. 1564–70) securely given to Giovanni Battista Moroni (c. 1525–1578), but an important new addition to the oeuvre of Francesco Girolamo Mazzola, called Il Parmigianino 1503 – 1540), a Portrait of a Man dated around 1530, after the artist had been energetically and somewhat successfully working in Bologna. As a very young man, in 1524, he had left his native Parma for Rome, in order to finish his training and to pursue commissions at the Papal court. In those years following the death of Raphael and Pope Leo X, the grand commissions of the previous decade were no longer available for the numerous young artists in the city. Many of these, like Parmigianino, turned to smaller forms, prints and drawings for decorative artists, to supplement their income from the relatively small panel paintings in demand at the time. This milieu abruptly came to an end with the Sack of Rome in 1527. Many artists’ studios and works of art were destroyed. According to Vasari, Parmigianino was able to avoid disaster by putting on a display of frenetic work for the troops. He managed to cultivate good relations with the invaders, but soon enough he had to flee the city. He came to Bologna, where he could stay with a good friend, and set to work with a vengeance. He was especially prolific as a portraitist in Bologna, since it suited both local demand and the artist’s need for ready cash. He executed most of these portraits on panel, using a dark ground, from which he built up forms with highlights of white lead with skin tones of white lead mixed with pink flesh tones. A few, of which the important allegorical portrait of the Emperor Charles V is the prime example, were painted on canvas, using a warm, tawny shade as a ground layer. We know that the Charles V was painted in haste for his coronation as Emperor, it is possible that the canvas technique enabled Parmigianino to work faster. There were most likely economic reasons for the choice of medium as well. He executed this portrait with consistent finish throughout, a feature not always found in his panel paintings. For example, the hands and arms of the children in the pair of family portraits in the Prado are no more than sketched in with loose strokes of the brush, not that the paintings are any the worse for it.
Another important Emilian find is a signed portrait of a Young Man Holding a Palm (c. 1520–25) by Francesco Maria Rondani (Italian, 1490–1550). This is one of very few works attributed to this obscure but exceptional master, whose style partakes of both the examples of Correggio and or Parmigianino, as shown here by the luxuriant soft modelling of the flesh and the wild, romantic landscape.
A striking Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Lira da Braccio (c. 1510–20) is one of the more interesting puzzles posed in the exhibition, not least because of its unusual iconography, but also because it has so far eluded attribution. A young man looks downwards out of an unglazed opening, while holding a lira da braccio in his left hand and a bow in the right. He prominently wears a ring with a bright red stone on the forefinger of his left hand as well as a more discreet one on his pinky. Two of the seven strings are broken. A lemon — a symbol of constancy in love — lies on the sill beneath his billowing sleeve of blue fabric. Is this a portrait of a musician or a poet whose song has been cut short in some way, perhaps by rejection in love or death? The musical instrument, in fact, makes it clear that the young man is or was a poet. The lira da braccio was the instrument of choice for poet-improvisors in Fifteenth and Sixteenth century Italy. It was designed primarily for chordal accompaniments, with its five main strings and two outboard drones. Furthermore its association with Orpheus and the poets of antiquity heightened its appeal to poets: Apollo himself plays one in Raphael’s Parnassus in the Vatican Stanze.
The catalogue entry mentions two possible attributions. David Ekserdjian sees parallels in the early work of the Sienese painter, Domenico Beccafumi (1484 – 1551), notably the Trinity Altarpiece (1514) in the Siena Pinacoteca and two Madonnas in Berlin and Florence, which have also been attributed to the anonymous Maestro delle Eroine Chigi Saraceni. Others consider it to be Florentine, and Piero di Cosimo has been suggested as the author. Dennis Geronimous thinks is a Florentine work of c. 1505-25 by a younger artist, “well aware of older masters like Piero di Cosimo and Ridolfo Ghirlandaio but also responding to artists of the next generation such as Franciabigio, Andrea del Sarto, and Pontormo.” For my part I fail to see either Beccafumi or Piero di Cosimo in it, but I do see affinities with late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Florence. Even in his earliest works, Beccafumi favored a dramatic contrasty light, which breaks up the planes of his figures into isolated facets of intense light and shade. By contrast this portrait shows the steady, single-sourced light typical of Florentine painting from the 1490s to around 1515, which one sees in paintings by Domenico Ghirlandaio, some works of Piero di Cosimo, and others. The Barberini Mary Magdalene by Piero which has been used as a point of comparison, resembles this painting only in window device. In the Magdalene Piero employed a contrasty illumination drawn from Leonardo’s early Benois Madonna. Piero’s handling of anatomical details like the hands is in fact more confident that the artist who painted the young man. I also fail to see the influence of the generations of Andrea del Sarto and the rest. It is rather the work of an artist somewhat older or more conservative than Piero.
I’m surprised that, to my knowledge, no one has proposed Lorenzo di Credi (Florence 1456-1536) for this painting. Lorenzo often favored the brightish, low-contrast lighting found in the Portrait of the Young Man, especially in the facial tones, which are gently modelled in this narrow range of gradations. One can compare the tondo of Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist (1488-90) in the Galleria Borghese or the Uffizi Venus (c. 1490). The sensitively observant modelling of the young man’s facial planes appears in a typical and exceptionally fine head study by Lorenzo in the MFA in Boston. Note also the treatment of the sitter’s long, straight hair. One might well consider whether the physiognomy in the painting is an idealized version of the apprentice who posed for the drawing. A great many of Lorenzo’s head studies — clearly a favorite genre of his — have survived, and they are consistent with the both MFA drawing and the present painting.
There is also a strong Morellian argument in the poet’s hands, which are typical of Lorenzo di Credi in the summary tubular shape of the outstretched fingers that grasp the bow and the fingers bent around the neck of the Lira, with the backward-curving, slightly over-contoured lines of the thumb. Compare the fingers and thumbs of the Borghese Madonna and the Uffizi Venus, among others. The stylistic relationship to Lorenzo di Credi’s development and that of Florentine painting in general would suggest a date sometime between 1490 and 1510, perhaps more towards the middle of that period. The lira da braccio most closely resembles the instrument played by an angel in Giovanni Bellini’s S. Zaccaria Altarpiece of 1505. I hope to discuss this fascinating painting more systematically in the near future.
The are more pleasures and puzzles in this room — the strange Head and Shoulders of a Woman, dated in the catalogue to the 16th century, being one of the more disturbing among them, and Alessandro Allori’s Portrait of a Young Woman one of the pleasures — and there is much more in the baroque room that follows: an irresistably sexy small panel of a Young Woman (c. 1630–33) by Thomas de Keyser (c. 1596–1667), who was caught by the painter just as she is rising from her chair as a provocative hint of a smile curls her mouth, Alonso Sanchez Coello’s Portrait of a fifteen-year-old Elisabeth de Valois (c. 1560), who is splendidly tricked out but disturbingly frail, van Dyck’s Portrait of his London mistress, Margaret Lemon (c. 1638) and his oil sketch on paper of a Young Bearded Man (c. 1618–19). This is the richest gallery of all, including a rumbustious early Portrait of a Young Man (c. 1613–15) by Rubens, a haunting Young Man in a Gray Jacket (c. 1659) by Michael Sweerts, a magnificent Cranach, and Bernini’s portrait of his brother, Domenico Bernini (c. 1630–35), or so it is thought. Two “portraits” by Ribera of an ancient philosopher and a saint also enrich the room.
The final gallery extends well into the nineteenth century with superb works by Gros, Gérard, and David — all of eminent sitters — as well as a characteristially romantic self-portrait by Franquelin, but for me the high point was Greuze’s nobly restrained portrait of the lawyer Jean Tupinier (1797), an old friend from the artist’s home town, Tournus. In the years after the Revolution Tupinier achieved prominence as a legislator and public servant. He helped Greuze in a difficult lawsuit when the artist’s career was in decline and he had suffered many personal reverses. In gratitude Greuze offered to paint a portrait of Mme. Tupinier, but she was ailing and could not come to Paris, and Greuze could not travel to Tournus. Instead he made a portrait of his friend to be offered as a gift to his wife. The painting remained in the family until 2006.
Don’t miss Eye to Eye. It is a thoroughly pleasurable show which will inform and stimulate your appreciation of the art of portraiture as no other, not to mention the art and science of connoisseurship, much despised in recent years, but needed. To think of all the suspect if not miserable scraps attributed to the likes of Andrea del Sarto and Pontormo one sees these days!
*When I was a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, I was struck by the preponderance of portraits in the collection. It stands to reason that a traditionally Presbyterian town like Cleveland would have been attracted to portraiture as an alternative to religious painting. (It is probably not the only American museum in which a certain bit of accessions committee folklore circulates, according to which one prominent citizen saw a Botticelli hanging on the boardroom wall and growled, “Not another goddam madonna?!”) As I researched the matter further, I learned that, in the original installation of the collection when the museum first opened in 1917, the first thing one saw after climbing up the steps of the main entrance and entering through the huge doors was a Copley portrait of George Washington, surrounded by other founding luminaries. A visitor accessed the rest of the collection from this room. In 1917 xenophobia was rampant in the United States, fueled by Woodrow Wilson’s decision to join in the war in Europe. One of the prime missions of the museum was to educate the hundreds of thousands of Central European immigrants who had come to Cleveland to work in the factories and to prepare them to become good loyal Americans. A portrait of an educated, industrious statesman furthered this agenda far more effectively than what they saw as a reminder Old World superstitions.