The end of an era

Portrait painting used to be a big deal. How big? Artists able to capture likenesses were so prized back in the day that when Persian Shah Ismail made preparations to battle the marauding Turks some 500 years ago, he sent his portraitist Kamal Behzad into hiding because painters like him who were good at immortalizing their leaders were prized as spoils of war. But that was then and this is now and memorializing powerful people in paint is no longer a country’s priority.

So why is London’s National Gallery trying to purchase “Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap” (1530), an image of some bored-looking 18-year-old blueblood from Florence, looking (or trying to look) untouched by any desire or disappointment? And given that the picture is attributed to Jacopo Carrucci da Pontormo, why pick this one? Faces by Pontormo typically look bedeviled. He exaggerated form to enhance expression and there’s not a lick of expression in this kid’s face. It’s not surprising that the portrait was once attributed to another painter, Pontormo’s contemporary, Alessandro Allori.  

Out of character

How atypical is “Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap” for Pontormo? Consider his “Joseph in Egypt” packed with so many churning figures that the main character in the Biblical tale is hard to discern. Contortions of the figures look all the more unsettling because of a flight of stairs that leads to nowhere. Even the palette of pinks and reds in this painting looks flustered. Pontormo was said to be like that, too – in a constant state of agitation. Historian Giorgio Vasari saw him as so overly anxious to do well in his work that when it came time to complete a work, he’d wipe it out and start over. Seeing him do this again and again, Vasari called him “piteous.” And the extra time he took to start a work was mostly taken up with worrying about it, which left him little time to finish it.

The question goes begging

Pontormo confirmed in his diary that he had these problems and even added a couple more: melancholia and hypochondria. He said he had such a fear of death that he stayed away from crowds in order to escape suffocation. Living alone, he didn’t ask for anything. For example, he rejected a bonus from Duke Alessandro, who was pleased with his work. Pontormo said he didn’t want the money, and accepted only enough to get his coat out of a pawn shop. Clearly Pontormo struggled and pictured that in paintings. Again, this puts his supposed “Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap” into question. This painting is just too smooth, too unremarkable looking to be his. Maybe London’s National Gallery should re-consider the previous attribution or find someone else to credit. But even if it turns out to be a certifiable Pontormo, why invest in a work so dull that no one would guess it’s his or care? #Android #Art