By Kathleen Morris, the Sylvia and Leonard Marx Director of Collections and Exhibitions and Curator of Decorative Arts and Co-Curator of Eye to Eye
As co-curator of the Eye to Eye exhibition, it was exciting and fun to delve into the histories and mysteries of the paintings (and one sculpture) in the show.
Each object had at least one secret that my colleague Richard Rand and I tried to uncover—sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
In each case we addressed basic questions, such as: Who was the artist? Who was the “sitter” (or the subject) of the portrait? Why or for whom was the painting made? What is the history of ownership (where has the painting been since the time it was painted)?
These all seem like very straightforward questions, but the truth is that often the only clues we have to answer any of these questions lies with the object itself. Here is just one example of the many questions that these paintings raised. Future blog posts will deal with other questions, and Richard Rand and I will give a public talk on February 20 about some of the thorniest research issues we tackled!
The painting above is now widely accepted by scholars as painted by the Florentine artist Alessandro Allori, although in the early twentieth century it had been credited to Bronzino, the more famous teacher of Allori. At this point, the identification of the artist does not pose a challenge, but the identification of the sitter did.
It’s natural to want to identify the people we see in these portraits, and it’s even better if the person depicted led a glamorous or infamous life. In some twentieth-century publications, this painting was identified as a portrait of Bianca Cappello, the Venetian-born second wife of Grand Duke Francesco I de’ Medici, whose life story is full of passion and intrigue.
I spent time comparing this painting with other known depictions of Bianca, and while it is easy to see a trace of resemblance, her features simply did not strike me as sufficiently alike, even given the variations one must allow to painted likenesses by different artists.
What clinched it for me is a very simple matter: based on paintings we know for certain are of Bianca, we know her eyes were blue. This woman’s eyes are brown—dark brown. That is not a detail that a portrait painter of this age would change.
We don’t know who she is—but that’s okay! It doesn’t detract from the quality of the painting, which is ultimately what matters.