Sublime, Exhilarating del Sarto

Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action

an exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, June 23–September 13, 2015; and the Frick Collection, New York City, October 7, 2015–January 10, 2016
Catalog of the exhibition by Julian Brooks with Denise Allen and Xavier F. Salomon.
Getty Publications, 222 pp., $59.00
Andrea del Sarto: Study for the Head of Saint Joseph, circa 1526–1527
Private Collection
Andrea del Sarto: Study for the Head of Saint Joseph, circa 1526–1527

Faced with a choice between advancing his career abroad—in Paris, no less—and returning home, the Florentine painter Andrea del Sarto chose to come home, a choice for which his ambitious student Giorgio Vasari never quite forgave him. Vasari’s capsule description of his master in his Lives of the Artists is as sharply critical as it is memorable:

And now we come to Andrea del Sarto, in whom nature and art revealed all that painting can accomplish in a single person through draftsmanship, color, and invention, so much so that if Andrea had been a man of a slightly more courageous and daring spirit (for he was profound in his talent and judgment), he would undoubtedly have had no equals.

But a certain timidity of spirit and a certain retiring simplicity of his nature never allowed him to develop a certain lively ardor, or that confidence which, added to all his other gifts, would have made him truly divine as a painter. For this reason he lacked the elaboration, grandeur, and versatility of style that can be seen in others. His figures, though simple and pure, are nonetheless well conceived, free from error, and supremely perfect in every respect.

This carefully crafted account comes from the second edition of the Lives, published in 1568. At fifty-seven, Vasari had become an illustrious teacher in his own right, the founder of a pioneering state-sponsored art school, the Florentine Academy and Company of the Arts of Drawing (Accademia e Compagnia delle Arti del Disegno), as well as the preferred artist and architect for two competing heads of state, the Grand Duke of Tuscany and the pope. A man of such enormous influence had good reason to temper his words.

Twenty years earlier, a leaner, hungrier Vasari had written about Andrea at far greater length and with blistering intimacy. Nervous, struggling, and in debt, the neophyte writer had staked his career on the idea that people might want to read the biographies of artists, and hence for the inaugural edition of the Lives, published in 1550, Andrea del Sarto came wrapped in a cloud of gossip:

The most excellent painter Andrea del Sarto, more excellent in his life than in his art, was deeply obliged to nature because of a rare talent in painting. If he had devoted himself to a more civil and respectable life and not neglected himself and his neighbors for his craving for a woman who always kept him poor and lowly, he would have stayed in France, where he was summoned by that King [François I] who adored his work and esteemed him greatly, and would have rewarded him on a grand scale. Instead, to satisfy his own appetite and hers, he returned home and…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.