fig. 1
Unknown Ferrarese artist

For the past sixty years the National Gallery of Victoria has been home to Profile portrait of a lady (fig. 1), a singular and highly accomplished example of Italian Quattrocento portraiture. Though the work is relatively well known to scholars, no concerted investigation had ever taken place to more fully establish its probable origin and date of manufacture.1 Melbourne’s Profile portrait of a lady is perhaps best known to scholars through two important contributions by Patricia Simons: ‘A profile portrait of a Renaissance woman in the National Gallery of Victoria’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no. 28, 1987, pp. 34–52 (available online at: http://publications.ngv.vic.gov.au/artjournal/a-profile-portrait-of-a-renaissance-woman-in-the-national-gallery-of-victoria/#.VCw87BZkiPk); and ‘Women in frames: the gaze, the eye, the profile in Renaissance portraiture’, History Workshop: A Journal of Socialist and Feminist Historians, no. 25, spring, 1988, pp. 4–30. The occasion of the portrait’s technical examination and restoration in 2006–07 provided an excellent opportunity to reassess this work from a material, technical and stylistic viewpoint.2 A detailed technical examination on the painting was carried out by John Payne in 1986. Cleaning and restoration work was carried out by Carl Villis between April 2006 and January 2007. Removal of restorer’s additions and panel repair was carried out by Carl Villis and John Payne in 2006. Critical to this process was the recovery of the painting’s original proportions; cleaning and restoration also paved the way for a more precise examination of the woman’s attire and jewellery, and presented the opportunity to freshly scrutinise aspects of technique, style and influence. Underlying this broad enquiry was the central question whether its long-held identification as a work of Florentine origin could be sustained, or whether instead it would more comfortably fit within the context of northern Italian painting.

The portrait depicts a noblewoman with her face in strict profile, looking to our left, but with her shoulders angled slightly towards the viewer. She stands before a dark background painted in azurite blue pigment. Her high social rank is confirmed by her expensive brocade garments, three prominent pieces of jewellery, and an elaborate hairpiece held in place with ribbons, pins and pearls. The curve of the neck and shape of the chin suggest a mature woman.

The portrait is striking for its clarity of light and crisp articulation of form, which strongly evoke the third quarter of the Italian Quattrocento. The highly iconic quality of Italian fifteenth-century female portraits, combined with their rarity, fuelled an avid demand for them on the part of British, German and American collectors throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.3 See David Alan Brown, Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women (exh.cat.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 2002, pp. 12–23. So highly were they coveted that it is unsurprising the NGV’s director Daryl Lindsay became smitten with the panel when he first encountered it during a visit to the Agnew’s dealership in London in 1945 (fig. 2). Lindsay made the acquisition of the painting a matter of priority, and it was at his urging that the Felton Bequest approved the purchase in August of that year.4 A letter from Daryl Lindsay to the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria dated 1 June 1945 strongly urged the committee to approve the purchase. The work came with the support of Sir Kenneth Clark, Professor Randolph Schwabe, V&A Museum Director Leigh Ashton and Keeper of Paintings at the Royal Collection Anthony Blunt. A letter from Colin Agnew to Sir Keith Murdoch, dated 8 August 1945, confirmed the purchase of the work for £14,000. NGV curatorial records’. As was then customary for prominent Old Master acquisitions made by the NGV, the portrait was hung in the National Gallery in London for several months prior to its shipment to Melbourne in early 1946.5 Letter to Sir Daryl Lindsay from the Felton Bequest committee, 24 August 1945, Felton Archive, National Gallery of Victoria.

Like so many other Italian female portraits of the Renaissance, the known provenance of the Melbourne panel does not currently extend back before the nineteenth century, when it first appears in the collection of the British dealer and collector Alexander Barker in 1858.6 The following provenance of the portrait has been provided by Julia Jackson, Cataloguer at the National Gallery of Victoria: Collection of Alexander Barker Esq. (c. 1797–1873, dealer-collector), by 1858; exhibited British Institution, London, 1858, no. 17, as ‘Isotta da Rimini’ by Piero Della Francesca, owner Alexander Barker; collection of Sir Francis Cook (1817–1901), 1st Baronet, 1st Viscount Montserrat, Doughty House, Richmond, Surrey, by 1873, catalogued as ‘Portrait of a Lady, Sienese School’; by descent to Sir Frederick Cook (1844–1920), 2nd Baronet, 2nd Viscount Montserrat, Doughty House, 1901–20; then to Sir Herbert Cook (1868–1939), 3rd Baronet, 3rd Viscount Montserrat, Doughty House, Surrey, 1920–39; Trustees of the Cook Estate, 1939–45; sold to Agnew’s (dealer), London, 1945; from where purchased for the Felton Bequest, 1945, as by Paolo Uccello; arrived Melbourne 1946. It had passed to the collection of Sir Francis Cook by 1873 and remained at the Cook family residence of Doughty House in Richmond, Surrey, until the year of its acquisition by the NGV. Throughout those years it was attributed at various times to Piero della Francesca, Francesco di Giorgio and Paolo Uccello, under whose name it first entered the collection.7 For a summary of previous attributions, see Ursula Hoff, European Paintings at the National Gallery of Victoria (1961), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1995, p. 168 n. 4. By 1961 the portrait was catalogued as a work by an unknown Florentine painter of the fifteenth century, and this attribution continued unchallenged up until relatively recently, continuing a widespread acceptance that the work was of Tuscan origin.8 ibid.

Painted profile portraits of this type were popular in Italy for a period spanning around seventy years, commencing in the 1430s in Florence and Ferrara, and ending in Milan around the first decade of the sixteenth century. Over this time a number of distinct regional types and preferences evolved.

Probably the most sustained activity in profile portraiture took place in the northern Italian princely courts, notably in Ferrara, where the development of painted portraits occurred in tandem with the rather more highly prized bronze medal portraits, which paired the physical likeness of the sitter on the obverse with a symbolic emblem or impresa on the reverse. In medal portraiture the facial portrait on one side was intended to represent the individual’s physical being, while the emblem on the reverse gave expression to his or her spiritual essence and deeds. Though there are some painted portraits with emblems and mottoes on the panel reverse, it appears that the relatively humble painted portrait may have served a more prosaic function, simply illustrating the sitter’s likeness for decorative or dynastic purposes. Most profile portraits from the northern Italian courts of Ferrara, Mantua and Milan were small in scale.9 A survey of the dimensions of known Italian profile portraits reveals that northern portraits were smaller in scale than their Florentine counterparts, frequently less than 40 centimetres in height. By contrast, just one of the known Florentine portraits was under 40 centimetres – a portrait by Lo Scheggia in the Musèe Jacquemart-Andrè in Paris, which measures 39 centimetres in height. In northern portraits the subjects – who were overwhelmingly male – were usually depicted against a dark blue background, emulating the austere aesthetic of the medal busts. Surviving examples suggest that this cameo-like pictorial tradition continued more or less unbroken in the decades between the 1440s and 1480s.

An altogether different pattern is evident in Florentine profile portraiture. There, portraits were mostly confined to female subjects, and developed largely as an independent art form in the absence of any tradition of bronze medal portraiture, which did not come into vogue in Florence until the 1470s. Perhaps as a consequence of this, Tuscan painters enjoyed greater license to embellish their profile portraits with a variety of pictorial devices, frequently placing their subjects within realistic contexts involving architectural elements, skies, landscapes or possessions. The only period in which the dark blue background appeared to find favour was from the 1450s to the 1460s, in a small number of works now attributed to painters such as the Master of the Castello Nativity, Lo Scheggia and Alesso Baldovinetti. However, even during this phase Florentine portraits are distinguishable from their northern counterparts by their size and shape: they were generally larger and were usually of a more vertically oriented format.

Given the greater prevalence of female subjects in Florentine portraits and their rarity in northern Italian portraiture, it was entirely understandable that the Melbourne panel would be viewed within a Tuscan context. This line of thinking might have been encouraged by a deceit from an earlier restoration: at some point in the past, probably during the nineteenth century, the painting had been extended along all edges, but most significantly along the top and left, where strips of mahogany wood were attached and painted, significantly enlarging the dark blue field of the background (fig. 3).

The effect of these extensions was to create greater space around the subject in a way that made the portrait more comparable to works such as the National Gallery in London’s two Florentine profile portraits, both of which had already entered the British national collection by 1866 (fig. 4). When the Melbourne painting was returned to its original dimensions in 2006, the differences between it, the London paintings and other notable portraits now attributed to Lo Scheggia (fig. 5) and the Master of the Castello Nativity became more evident, suggesting that the owner and restorer responsible for the panel extensions may have intended the work to look more Florentine.

The recovered post-treatment proportions now show the Melbourne panel to have more in common with portraits made in Ferrara in the decade between 1465 and 1475, and to a certain extent with examples made in Mantua and Milan during the same period.10 The only readily identifiable Mantuan profile portraits of this period are a group of three works by Andrea Mantegna (c. 1430–1506). In Milan the pair representing Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti in the Brera are attributed to Bonifacio Bembo (d. by 1482). The portrait specialist Baldassare d’Este (c. 1432–1506), though Ferrarese, was first recorded as active in Milan between 1461 and 1469 before returning to Ferrara up until his death. Common to most northern Italian portraits is the compositional device of placing the sitter significantly closer to the picture plane so that most of the painted surface is occupied by the head and shoulders, with the edges of the painting cropped tightly around the figure, creating a slightly boxed-in effect. This is clearly illustrated by one of the few known northern female portraits of the period, the portrait of Bianca Maria Visconti attributed to Bonifacio Bembo (fig. 6), yet there are several other male portraits by artists circulating in Estense Ferrara throughout the 1460s and 1470s that are comparable in size and proportions with the Melbourne panel (figs. 7–9). Though the portraits in this group appear to be the work of diverse artists, they collectively reveal a consistency of approach – clearly intended to meet local demand – which cannot be found in Florentine portraits, whose variations in style appear to depend largely on the manner of highly individual artists.11 It is not a simple task to construct a genuine Ferrarese school of the 1460s and 1470s beyond the work of Cosmè Tura (most active during the reign of Borso d’Este but active as a portraitist for the Estensi until the 1480s), his near contemporary Francesco del Cossa (who departed Ferrara for Bologna in 1470) and the younger Ercole de Roberti (whose activity in the 1460s and 1470s may have been largely in Bologna). To this group, along with the returning Baldassare d’Este, were Gianfrancesco Maineri, Antonio Cicognara and a painter identified as the Master of the Boston Desco.

      

Such consistency of format and technique enables us to identify several details of the Melbourne portrait as common to the Ferrarese artists. These are found in the facial flesh tones, hair and jewellery.

A notable feature of the Melbourne portrait is the modelling of the skin tones (fig. 10). Here we see facial flesh tones blended in thin, smoothly applied layers of lead white with subtle vermilion tinting over the cheek and lips. These layers barely cover the gesso ground layer, giving the face a pale, powdered appearance and allowing the fine, vertically oriented craquelure from the wood grain and gesso priming to show through. This effect can be seen in several Ferrarese portraits of the 1460s and 1470s, such as Cosmè Tura’s Portrait of a young man, 1470s (fig. 8), in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and particularly in the face of the rather worn and slightly less refined portrait of a boy by attributed to Francesco del Cossa in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (fig. 9). By contrast, the Florentine blue-background portraits display a denser modelling with lead white paint and more textured brushwork, with the possible exception of the two profile portraits given to Lo Scheggia; however, those particular works appear significantly cruder in execution compared with their northern counterparts.

The 2006 restoration of the NGV’s panel brought about a distinct change in the appearance of the sitter’s hair. A previous restorer had added a superfluous tuft of hair extending out over the white ribbon supporting the headdress, giving the exposed hair an indistinct form and appearance (fig. 11). When the original hair arrangement was reinstated it revealed tightly delineated curls painted with a meticulous attention to line (fig. 12). Highly stylised and finely rendered curls of hair like these are characteristic of Ferrarese portraits of this period, including the Tura and del Cossa portraits cited above.

A similar attention to fine detail is evident in the rendering of the jewellery and pearls. In the head brooch or the seraph-crowned shoulder brooch the description of the pearls, ruby and gold mounting is executed with a precision that is not characteristic of those found in corresponding details of any of the Florentine blue-background portraits (figs 13 and 14). However, such lovingly detailed pearls and gold tracery – suggesting a close study of Flemish painting – are consistent with the paintings by Ferrarese artists such as Cosmè Tura, Francesco del Cossa and Ercole de’ Roberti, and can be found in many examples of those artists’ work, such as Tura’s A muse (Calliope?) in the National Gallery in London, del Cossa’s St John the Baptist in the Brera, and Ercole’s Ginevra Bentivoglio in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

One aspect of the painting’s technique that may eventually assist in determining its maker and origin is the underdrawing. Infrared reflectogram images reveal a sparse underdrawing technique with almost needle-thin hatch lines to mark out the areas of hair (fig.15) and outlines of the eyes and nose. Some of these lines, such as the curves on the underside of the headdress horns or the hair falling on the cheek, carry fine, curved lines revealing a confident hand at work, while other lines, such as those marking the folds of the benducce supporting the headdress, appear less assured in their execution. As infrared images of similar portraits become available it may be possible to identify other works that share this technique.

Conclusions

When viewed in isolation, technical research is rarely conclusive in determining the authorship of a painting, particularly in cases like this where the work shares a number technical and material characteristics with other Italian paintings of the fifteenth century. Nevertheless, it can provide critical guidance in the effort to resolve questions regarding its origin, establishing a more reliable foundation upon which further examination of the stylistic, cultural and historical aspects of the painting can be explored, as we see with parallel research on the painting presented elsewhere in this journal.

Several identifiable characteristics of the Melbourne profile portrait’s composition, proportions and execution appear clear enough to confidently differentiate it from the numerous Tuscan examples of female profile portraiture of the fifteenth century. They indicate that the NGV’s Profile portrait of a lady sits more comfortably alongside the portraits of the northern Italian princely courts, or more specifically, within the orbit of Ferrarese painters operating around the d’Este court of Ferrara, such as Francesco del Cossa, Cosmè Tura and Ercole de’ Roberti. Unfortunately, any attempt to bring the attribution a step further and nominate a particular artist as the painter of the NGV panel is likely to be problematic given that very few profile portraits made by these artists are confidently attributed, and the wider issue of attributing paintings to particular artists of the Ferrarese school remains a thorny one. However, time and further research into the technical and stylistic development of this circle of painters may yet bring us closer to determining the artist responsible for this charming work.

Carl Villis, Conservator of European paintings before 1800, NGV (in 2016)

The author wishes to thank the following people for their kind assistance during the course of this research: John Payne, Ted Gott, Julia Jackson, Elisabetta Gnignera, Luke Syson, Matthew Martin, Maggie Finch, Rikke Foulke and Michael Swicklik.

Notes

1

Melbourne’s Profile portrait of a lady is perhaps best known to scholars through two important contributions by Patricia Simons: ‘A profile portrait of a Renaissance woman in the National Gallery of Victoria’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no. 28, 1987, pp. 34–52 (available online at: http://publications.ngv.vic.gov.au/artjournal/a-profile-portrait-of-a-renaissance-woman-in-the-national-gallery-of-victoria/#.VCw87BZkiPk); and ‘Women in frames: the gaze, the eye, the profile in Renaissance portraiture’, History Workshop: A Journal of Socialist and Feminist Historians, no. 25, spring, 1988, pp. 4–30.

2

A detailed technical examination on the painting was carried out by John Payne in 1986. Cleaning and restoration work was carried out by Carl Villis between April 2006 and January 2007. Removal of restorer’s additions and panel repair was carried out by Carl Villis and John Payne in 2006.

3

See David Alan Brown, Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women (exh.cat.), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 2002, pp. 12–23.

4

A letter from Daryl Lindsay to the Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria dated 1 June 1945 strongly urged the committee to approve the purchase. The work came with the support of Sir Kenneth Clark, Professor Randolph Schwabe, V&A Museum Director Leigh Ashton and Keeper of Paintings at the Royal Collection Anthony Blunt. A letter from Colin Agnew to Sir Keith Murdoch, dated 8 August 1945, confirmed the purchase of the work for £14,000. NGV curatorial records.

5

Letter to Sir Daryl Lindsay from the Felton Bequest committee, 24 August 1945, Felton Archive, National Gallery of Victoria.

6

The following provenance of the portrait has been provided by Julia Jackson, Cataloguer at the National Gallery of Victoria: Collection of Alexander Barker Esq. (c. 1797–1873, dealer-collector), by 1858; exhibited British Institution, London, 1858, no. 17, as ‘Isotta da Rimini’ by Piero Della Francesca, owner Alexander Barker; collection of Sir Francis Cook (1817–1901), 1st Baronet, 1st Viscount Montserrat, Doughty House, Richmond, Surrey, by 1873, catalogued as ‘Portrait of a Lady, Sienese School’; by descent to Sir Frederick Cook (1844–1920), 2nd Baronet, 2nd Viscount Montserrat, Doughty House, 1901–20; then to Sir Herbert Cook (1868–1939), 3rd Baronet, 3rd Viscount Montserrat, Doughty House, Surrey, 1920–39; Trustees of the Cook Estate, 1939–45; sold to Agnew’s (dealer), London, 1945; from where purchased for the Felton Bequest, 1945, as by Paolo Uccello; arrived Melbourne 1946.

7

For a summary of previous attributions, see Ursula Hoff, European Paintings at the National Gallery of Victoria (1961), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1995, p. 168 n. 4.

8

ibid.

9

A survey of the dimensions of known Italian profile portraits reveals that northern portraits were smaller in scale than their Florentine counterparts, frequently less than 40 centimetres in height. By contrast, just one of the known Florentine portraits was under 40 centimetres – a portrait by Lo Scheggia in the Musèe Jacquemart-Andrè in Paris, which measures 39 centimetres in height.

10

The only readily identifiable Mantuan profile portraits of this period are a group of three works by Andrea Mantegna (c. 1430–1506). In Milan the pair representing Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti in the Brera are attributed to Bonifacio Bembo (d. by 1482). The portrait specialist Baldassare d’Este (c. 1432–1506), though Ferrarese, was first recorded as active in Milan between 1461 and 1469 before returning to Ferrara up until his death.

11

It is not a simple task to construct a genuine Ferrarese school of the 1460s and 1470s beyond the work of Cosmè Tura (most active during the reign of Borso d’Este but active as a portraitist for the Estensi until the 1480s), his near contemporary Francesco del Cossa (who departed Ferrara for Bologna in 1470) and the younger Ercole de Roberti (whose activity in the 1460s and 1470s may have been largely in Bologna). To this group, along with the returning Baldassare d’Este, were Gianfrancesco Maineri, Antonio Cicognara and a painter identified as the Master of the Boston Desco.