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

Bulletin 22, 1973

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Bartolommeo Veneto and His Portrait of a Lady

by Creighton Gilbert

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |  9  


17 Besides the unique absence of early writing about Bartolommeo, the modern study of him contains an unusual thread which must be mentioned to complete our understanding. Once again it derives from his exceptional specialization in small works, especially portraits. These are naturally liked by art dealers more than large altarpieces, because they are convenient to hang in modern houses, because they are easily enjoyed subjects, and because they are sumptuous and ornamental; they are also easier for the dealer to obtain because they come from personal rather than institutional ownership. In this connection we see an intense period of writing about Bartolommeo, particularly in magazines that were dealer vehicles through advertising, such as Belvedere, Pantheon, Connoisseur, and Art News, in the late 1920s (with publication dates extending to 1931), the climactic years of the age of old master collecting associated with Duveen. These articles of 1927-1931, including five major studies, are still the bulk of the study of Bartolommeo. It then ceased, but it is followed to the mid-1930s by a phenomenon of full page color reproductions of his works; it is hard today to realize the impact of these, at a time when magazines could usually afford to present only one colour reproduction to an issue, so that they evoked the editorial accolade for a masterpiece. Thus when the Washington portrait appeared in this form in Art News (in a plate thriftily used again four years later), the text called Bartolommeo "one of the greatest portrait painters of the new age." Both the articles and the plates included works for sale or recently sold, and owners mentioned, besides Duveen, included such leading dealers as Howard Young, Matthiesen, and the dealer-historian Langton Douglas.

Purchases that seem to correspond to this publicity are noticeable in continental Europe at the time, including the Contini purchase of this portrait (today in Ottawa) and Thyssen purchases, the latter given emphasis in reviews of a loan exhibition of his collection at the Alte Pinacothek, Munich Concini and Thyssen were probably the most spectacular buyers of old masters in Europe at the time. Since the Brera Gallery in Milan has very rarely bought at all, its purchase of the Girl with the Lute in 1930 is to be related to the same circumstances. But in America, Duveen's great field, there were remarkably few purchases. It is true that the Kress collection bought what was certainly considered the most important work, the portrait now in Washington which was realized to be the nearest analogue to his anthology piece in Rome. But since the Kress collection was omnivorous, even of unfashionable work, it is not a symptom of American trends. While figures like Mellon, Bache, and Frick bought none, many of the most beautiful works were purchased instead by collectors who, though very rich of course, were and are obscure in collecting contexts: Lawrence Fisher (of Fisher Bodies), Augustus Healy, James Parmelee, Percy Strauss (president of Macy's). Later, in some cases through their bequests, outstanding works went to relatively small museums, Brooklyn, Houston, and, most impressive as a clever purchase, Culver Academy in Indiana, which bought a picture once much discussed by critics when in a London collection and at the Paris dealer Sedelmeyer, yet later hardly remembered, and available for a small outlay. The Strauss portrait, similarly, a Giorgionesque masterpiece which completes a group with the Rome and Washington ones, was the key object in Strauss' Park Avenue apartment, over the fireplace; yet today, after being given to Houston in the 1940s with the idea of assisting a region undeveloped in know ledge of past culture, now hangs with no chic traces left over from the great Holford auction of 1927 and the allusions of A. L. Mayer and Berenson. The spotlight fell from Bartolommeo faster than it rose; Art Index's volume for 1929-1932 listed fifteen reproductions of his work in art magazines, a clear token of fame for anyone, but all the columns together between 1941 and 1970 only list four. The previous emphasis on him in Art News and the Thyssen reviews would now only seem baffling, but he is ripe for fresh recognition.

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