Tuesday, May 20, 2014

MWA XXIV: Bronzino's Man

Over the past few years, I have posted news when some major museums began to release images of works of public domain art for free for academic use. Each year the number of institutions is increasing, and the number of high-quality, high-resolution images now available for free for downloading is in the millions, because of these open-access initiatives. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has just announced the release of over 400,000 high-resolution images now available for free as part of their Open Access for Scholarly Content initiative. They join the Getty Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Rijksmuseum, the British Museum, and Yale University in making these images available for non-profit, academic use without charging any fees. This, I can tell you, is an incredible advancement, and makes the work of writers who need images so much easier to be able to discuss works without paying hefty fees. In celebration of the Met's announcement, I decided to share as the May Monthly Work of Art one of my favorite paintings in the European Paintings galleries: Bronzino's Portrait of a Young Man, oil on wood, dated to the 1530s. The elegance of this young man and Bronzino's Manneristic approach in painting his physique, beauty, and self-assurance make him a striking subject. And the odd quirkiness of his lazy eye unsettles you enough to make you question whether it is in fact an abnormality or Bronzino's attempt to fool you into wondering at what or at whom the young man is gazing.

The release of these images means that, for the first time, X-rays and conservation photos will be made available for some works as well. So in looking through images of this painting, one finds a number of technical details that X-rays reveal through the layers of paint. You can see here an X-ray of the painting, and how it shows great differences in the original design of the architectural background. His face also is thinner and more attenuated, and the hand on his hip is posed differently, but this is indeed the same subject. Rather than cite more information about the painting, here is what the curators and conservators have to say about the painting.

"This arresting portrait of an unidentified young Florentine is dated by most scholars to the 1530s. During that decade Bronzino was often engaged in painting members of a close-knit circle of acquaintances with whom he shared literary interests, and this sitter—who so conspicuously holds open a book—may be from among that group. Vasari mentions the names of several of these sitters early in his biography of the artist and it has recently been suggested that this panel may portray Bonaccorso di Pietro Pinadori (born 1502), mentioned by the author alongside Ugolino Martelli and Lorenzo Lenzi, both of whose portraits have been identified (an earlier hypothesis that the picture is a self-portrait has not been taken up in the literature).

"The elegant young man wears a black satin doublet, with fashionably slashed sleeves, over a white camicia with a ruffled collar, and with a brilliant blue belt. Both his hat and the ties supporting his codpiece are decorated with gold aglets, and he wears one ring. He stands between an elaborately decorated table and chair within an architectural setting meant to suggest a Florentine palace. Both pieces of furniture include grotesque masks; that of the remarkable table is stretched as if made of fabric rather than stone. A third "mask" is suggested in an insistent pattern resembling a face within the drapery of the lower part of the costume. The meaning of these grotesque masks is debated; it may be that they are in some way analogous to poetic ideas of the time and refer to identity as a kind of mask. Bronzino was himself a poet. It is clear that they are meant to provide a contrast to the sitter's refined facial features and bearing.

"The numerous and important changes made by the artist as he painted were documented in x-radiographs as early as 1930. These have been clarified, and Bronzino's artistic process further elucidated, through new x-radiography and infrared reflectography of 2009 revealing underdrawing. Most conspicuously, the architectural setting was transformed: initially a straight molding ran at a diagonal behind the sitter (the underdrawing includes a corbel below that visible now at the left to coincide with this first idea for the setting). Two types of underdrawing have been revealed. The more unusual was done, probably with the butt end of a brush, directly into the panel's thick white imprimitura, or preparation layer. It was used vigorously to describe the draped grotesque mask at the left, outlining contours but also indicating shadows with diagonal hatching. Many of the artist's original compositional ideas are indicated in this type of drawing (these can be seen as well in the x-radiograph): they include the first position of the proper right hand and book, with the hand in stricter profile and the book shown with its spine facing the viewer and covers splayed; the placement of the proper left hand with the thumb tucked behind the waist; different contours of the sleeves, collar, and cuffs of the costume; and an elaboration in the area of the codpiece, into which an article of clothing—almost certainly gloves—was originally tucked. More traditional underdrawing in black chalk or charcoal and carbon-based ink or paint applied with a brush is found throughout the head and the hands. As seen in the x-radiograph as well, drawing of the head shows its initial shape to have been much narrower but with the features identically placed (dispelling the possibility that the final version is of a second sitter). The x-radiograph also indicates changes in the furniture at right that are not easily decipherable. Because of the extent of these changes, it has sometimes been speculated that the painting was begun at one time and then finished later—perhaps years later."

1 comment:

pranogajec said...

This is good news indeed!