National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 22, 1973

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Bartolommeo Veneto and His Portrait of a Lady

by Creighton Gilbert

Résumé en français

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A person is asking for our recognition and attention (cover: fig. I). Though in a different century and culture we have no difficulty at all in understanding that this was the purpose of making an image of her. (1) It is ironic that we have not only lost all knowledge of who she is, but that if the information should appear it would be unlikely to make any impression. We have shifted our approach, and the person to whom we relate is the maker of the image. We are interested in the way he went about it, and find the result worth treasuring; he was a good craftsman and can be supposed to have met the sitter's wishes; but did so in his own style, different from other artists' ways of meeting the same kind of order. His name at one time was also lost, and two hundred years ago a writer showed his approval of this painting, and the shift of interest to the artist, in saying that it was by Leonardo da Vinci. But then about ninety years ago, historians began the work of putting together the fragments of knowledge about Bartolommeo Veneto, who really did paint it, and this portrait was one of those very soon recognized as his. His personality is still full of puzzling gaps, but he is unmistakable in this and about thirty other paintings that have been located in various parts of the world.

The lady impels us to pay attention, to begin with, by dressing splendidly. Bartolommeo paint translates this into large colourare as, which acquire authority by their vibration, so that we respond to them sensuously. A favorite choice, seen in paintings of all phases of his career, is the deep translucent red, glowing like coal through black shadows. (2) Its active but unified surface is set against the cool receding green curtain, which, unlike most portrait backgrounds in paintings of all periods, is neither flat nor hazy, but another equally animated and vibrant colour area, whose lighting, texture, and bumpiness of projection and recession maintain the momentum of the foreground.

Such pictorial procedures say that the twentieth-century counterpart to such painting is not to be found in our society portrait painters, who often lean on the season's style as the effective channel for asserting beauty and significance. Bartolommeo's line leads rather to such painters of women as Matisse, in whom textile ornament is part of the blend producing sensuous life. Matisse's earliest direct ancestors, as a matter of fact, are in the Venetian Renaissance, particularly Titian, and Bartolommeo in part belongs to that same context. This less simple linkage to the present illustrates a more general situation: in the Renaissance the commissioned portrait was not yet saddled with the implications of exploitative commercial art; it was an active vehicle for the age's self-assertion, and perhaps the fullest expression to be found in one place of two of its leading new emphases: the observation of physical reality and the observation of individual character. Thus it was entirely viable as an art form. On the other hand, it is perfectly true that if we set Bartolommeo beside some other painters of his time the contrast suggests a connection between his exceptional specialization in this theme only and an effect of cooling down the life of his figures to an unusual degree in the direction of rich ornament, so that today the paintings that actually resemble his would be less those of Matisse than those of a variety of less universal masters, in whom we find again a narrow, sharp focus with colour areas of elegant fmesse, e.g., Eugene Berman, Walter Murch, Yves Tanguy.

Single figures of richly dressed women do indeed make up a larger part of Bartolommeo Veneto's work than that of any other Italian painter of his time, so that he is interesting to analyze as an exceptional person. (Such single figures are also a major vehicle, to be sure, for other artists such as Titian, but in his case of course must share the artist's attention with a much wider range of others.) Some of Bartolommeo's women are portraits, others saints or allegorical figures, and some are probably "fancy pictures," to employ a useful term of the eighteenth century, the great period for the categorizing of themes. (A "fancy picture" shows a girl whose costume or pose provides us with a title for the painting, but the pretty girl herself is the real reason for making it. Greuze's work provides classic examples.) This lady of Ottawa, among all of Bartolommeo's, has perhaps the quietest face, so that her rich costume carries nearly all of the effect; perhaps one might read the face as simply one more ornamental colour area without a different order of life. His other women seem to talk to us, turning their eyes to us, tilting their heads, smiling about something, or holding up objects in their hands for us to see. The difference in this neutral and passive lady is not the result, I think, of the artist having changed his approach to a more impersonal one, or one in which he makes the lady hide her feelings as if behind a mask; (3) it is not likely that this would happen just once, when the painting is otherwise quite typical as a comparison with another portrait shows (see fig. 2). It might rather be that this actually was a lady of calm and reserved character, and is faithfully so shown as one more of the painter' s many differentiated images. As an aspect of that possibility, or as an alternative, we might think that this picture belongs to a kind common in its period (but not known to exist in Bartolommeo's work), half a pair of portraits of husband and wife. In such a case, reduced expressiveness in the lady's face might be explained by the social psychology of wives at this time (as in the last act of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew), as well as the special pictorial situation with two focuses, thus suggesting less stress in each sitter. This possibility is raised because there is one male portrait by Bartolommeo that seems to show us just what the other half of the pair would look like. The Portrait of Master Bernardino da Lesmo (fig. 2) belongs to about the same date in Bartolommeo's career, is about the same size, and has a similar design (with background curtain); but it shows the man turning to the left, like the lady (and like most of Bartolommeo's sitters) so it cannot be her husband, because a pair would face each other symmetrically. (4)

A third explanation for the unusual face of the lady, that of repainting, appears to be less plausible on closer inspection. The X-rays, showing revisions on the surface, seem to show that only the costume has been altered, as we shall see, and that the face has been left wholly unchanged. The apparent differences of facial expression, between X-ray and final surface, cannot be attributed to any particular revision. Bach line is the same; hence the difference in the photographic process seems to be responsible for this effect.

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