‘Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture’
“The Frick has chosen a somewhat wrongheaded way of presenting the sixteenth-century Italian painter Giovanni Battista Moroni,” writes Sanford Schwartz. “The exhibition’s subtitle is “The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture,” which can be taken in two ways. The irrefutable meaning is that Moroni significantly added to the body of portraits that we have from the Renaissance. The second, and debatable, meaning of “riches” is that the artist’s pictures give a tour of the era’s taste for finery. The curators probably believe that Moroni, whose work is being given its long-overdue first museum show in New York, illustrates both meanings of the word.
“In his portraits of men and his fewer examples of women and children, it is the face of the person before him that is his one real, constant subject. He apparently didn’t make preparatory drawings. He painted with his sitter directly in front of him, often making that person’s head life-size on the canvas. He clearly loved painting skin and the different aspects of a face, and while we learn in the catalog that he applied paint thinly, one of the great pleasures of his pictures is the way he makes oil paint feel like a tangible, softly glowing, and somehow very clean substance. He is the least glossy of painters.
“Moroni was hardly a protean creator on the order of such artists of his time as Titian, Tintoretto, or Veronese. When he wasn’t making portraits, he took commissions for altarpieces, and these appear, at least in reproduction, to be staid and impersonal. Nor do all his portraits catch fire. There are certainly canvases in the Frick’s show in which a sense of the sitter’s animating life is missing, and we see merely a face. Yet in the score or more of his finest examples (out of a total of something over a hundred) we look at sitters who radiate a consciousness. Without being stamped with one clear-cut attitude or mood, they have what one writer has called “truth of character.” Equally objective and empathic, working as if he were partly a photographer and partly a psychologist, Moroni could capture in each of his subjects what a viewer believes is that person’s fundamental self.”
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