Sunday, February 24, 2019

Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture

Why do I write a missive?  Sometimes I just have an idea or it is a suggestion, though, the individual may not know it, that sets me off.  In this case, it was my wife falling in love with an invitation that we received in the mail from the Frick Collection in New York.

It was for their exhibition, “Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture”.  The illustration was a portrait of a young woman who has not been identified but you feel you would recognize, if you met in the street.  What is quite incredible is that a work of this quality can still be found in  private collections as are other paintings in the show. Here is the painting of the young woman accompanied by the curators for the exhibition Arturo Galansino, Director of the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Aimee Ng,  Associate Curator at the Frick and Simone Facchinetti,  Curator at the Museo Adriano Bernareggi in Bergamo.

Photo credit: Michael Bodycomb

Giovanni Battista Moroni (1520/24 – 1579/80) spent his career in and around his birthplace, Bergamo, Italy, and is known for his portraiture. Most portraitists leave behind a number of self-portraits because they are their easiest subject to practice on.  Yet none by Moroni are known to exist. 

Masters of photography go beyond accurate recording to translate the image that he/she sees in their  mind’s eye into an image that everyone can understand.  How much more difficult to do that in a commissioned portrait painting.  As I have quoted before, Gilbert Stuart, the famed painter of George Washington portraits said, "What a business this of a portrait painter - you bring him a potato and expect he will paint you a peach." 

Moroni is credited with making realistic likenesses but still he must have had to deal with the vanities of his clients, so I am sure blemishes were forgiven and enhancements were added.  For example, in the portrait of Giovanni Gerolamo Grunelli, also known as “Il Cavaliere in Rosa” (sounds better than “The Man in Pink”) from 1560, lent by the Fondazione Museo di Palazzo Moroni in Bergamo, there just happens to be an antiquity on the ground next to the soldier, demonstrating his degree of culture.   As a matter of fact, the antiquity is possibly a prop from the artist’s studio as it can be found in other Moroni portraits such as that of the sculptor Alessandro Vittoria, circa 1551, lent to the exhibition by the Kunsthistorishes Museum, Vienna.

Photo Credit: KHM- Museumsverband

Having worked, as an art dealer in all media, I like it when objects are brought in to reinforce the points being made.  Here, the curators of the exhibition found a 2nd century AD sculpture in the Detroit Institute of Arts that is similar if not the same one, as that in Moroni’s paintings.

Photo Credit: Bridgeman Images

Years ago, I had a 16th century terracotta bust for sale.  A young art historian in the sculpture department of the National Gallery in Washington D.C. requested it for loan and  did extensive research on it. That was Eike Schmidt who has just left the directorship of the Ufizzi in Florence to become director at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.  He dated our terracotta, in part, by calling attention to a painting in the National Gallery in London in similar dress. The painting of “The Tailor” in the current exhibition.  We know the sitter’s profession by the piece of cloth on the table in front of him and the cutting shears in his hand.  A similar pair of 16th century shears from the MAK (Museum für angewandte Kunst, ie The Museum of Applied Arts) is included in the exhibition.

Photo credit: Michael Bodycomb

I have not yet seen the show but the images are so striking that you can interpret the attitudes of the sitters. In “Two Donors in Adoration before the Madonna and Child and St. Michael”, 1557-60, from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, who do you think is the dominant figure?  The gentleman, I fear, has made that quite clear to the artist.

Photo Credit: Katherine Wetzel

In other portraits, such as Lucia Albani Avogadro, called La Dama in Rosso (the Lady in Red), circa 1554-1557 from the National Gallery, London, it is easy to see she would rather be anywhere else.  Her husband probably insisted that she sit for the painting and she is thinking  “When will this be over?”

Photo Credit: The National Gallery, London

My father always praised his home town museum, The Städel in Frankfurt, Germany, saying that it was small but they had a prime example of all the great masters.  In this case, it is a Moroni of, “Lay Brother with a Fictive Frame” ca. 1557.  That quizzical look makes one wonder what had someone just said to him?  Is he thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me?”

Photo Credit: The Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

My Missives depend so often on the good offices of the Public Relations people at the institutions I write about in this case  Heidi Rosenau, Associate Director of Media Relations & Marketing at the Frick. Among the installation shots from the show that she sent to me I discovered that she too had posed with the young woman on the invitation.

Photo Credit: Michael Bodycomb

The Moroni  show opened just last week and will close on June 2nd.  Meanwhile, you have time to look and come up with your own thoughts on why the sitters appear as they do and what it says about the artist wanted to convey about them.

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