Giovanni Battista Moroni, “Bartolommeo Bonghi” (shortly after 1553). Oil on canvas, 40 x 32 1/4 inches (all images © the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

There are four portraits by Giovanni Battista Moroni (1524–1578) currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum, and each of them is a gem. Two are included in Bellini, Titian, and Lotto: Northern Italian Paintings from the Accademia Carrarra, Bergamo (May 15–September 3), an exhibition of fifteen modestly sized paintings, including “Orpheus and Eurydice (ca. 1510–1512), the smallest Titian (1485/90–1570) I have ever seen, and, as they say, a youthful effort.

The other two portraits — which are in the museum’s collection — can be seen in Gallery 610, a few rooms away.  The presence of four portraits by Moroni on the same floor in the same building is well worth a visit.

Moroni is not a headliner, as Bellini, Titian and Lotto’s top spot in the exhibition’s title makes clear. Curiously enough, his “Portrait of a Twenty-Nine-Year-Old Man (1567) graces the front cover of the exhibition catalog by Andrea Bayer and M. Christina Rodeschini. In his excellent article in the New York Review of Books (August 16, 2012), Sanford Schwartz writes:

Perhaps the designer of the appealingly small-sized catalog chose the Moroni, a 1567 portrait of a young man with a background of a neutral color, because, more than other pictures in the show, it provided a good space to set forth the lengthy title. But the cover could be saying, editorially, that while Bellini, Titian, and Lotto are the presumed attractions, it is Moroni’s image of a tense young man, with closely cropped hair and beard, that genuinely grips our attention.

It seems to me another reason could be that Moroni’s painting invites the viewer to believe that it might be a portrait of Bellini, Titian or Lotto when they were young men.

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In 1978, on the 400th anniversary of his death, the National Gallery, London, mounted an exhibition of Moroni’s portraits, including his masterpiece “Portrait of a Man” (ca. 1570), which is better known by its informal name, “The Tailor.” According to the modest, stapled catalogue published on the occasion of the exhibition, The National Gallery “possesses the most comprehensive collection of his portraits ever assembled together.”

This is what Allan Banham wrote in the catalogue:

Moroni lived almost his entire life under the distant shadow of Titian, who dominated painting in northern Italy for much of the 16th century. Several of his most celebrated portraits were for a long time wrongly attributed to Titian, and he himself is sometimes known as the ‘poor man’s Titian’ — an artist somehow deficient in imagination and capable of little more than capturing a vivid likeness in a portrait. Certainly Moroni lacked the complete artistry of Titian, and his many religious paintings show a sad inability to organize a narrative or to create convincing idealizations, but his portraits, so far from being merely good likenesses, are, of course, works of the imagination, and of a very personal kind, which should not be too strictly compared with the tradition represented by Titian. Ideals may be notoriously changeable, but human behavior is more constant, and in their apparent directness the portraits of Moroni have dated no more than the work of other supreme exponents of the portrait — Holbein, Moroni’s predecessor, or van Dyck, Perronneau and La Tour in 18th-century France, or even Goya and Ingres.

Giovanni Battista Moroni, “Portrait of a Twenty-Nine Year-Old Man” (1567). Oil on canvas, 22 3/8 x 17 1/2 inches (click to enlarge)

What makes the trip to the Metropolitan especially rewarding is that the two portraits from the Accademia Carrara — “Portrait of a Twenty-Nine Year-Old Man” (1567) and “Portrait of a Little Girl of the Redetti Family” (ca. 1570) — are complemented by two earlier Moroni portraits: “Bartolommeo Bonghi” (shortly after 1553) and “Abbess Lucrezia Agliardi Vertova” (1557). The subjects include two men, a young girl and an elderly widow. Look at them in chronological order, and it is clear that Moroni got better and better. And, as he did, he began cutting the distance separating him from his subject. The surroundings become less important, so that the view of the landscape through the window and the chair in which Bartolommeo Bonghi is seated are gone by the time he paints the twenty-nine-year-old man and the young girl (who is around five). All of the viewer’s attention is directed toward the sitter’s face, their assessing gaze. The spatial restrictions and Moroni’s sensitivity to the exact disposition of the head and body help to heighten the viewer’s experience.

What is striking about Moroni’s portraits is that he seems never to have retreated into a style, never flattered or generalized the sitter’s features. He kept himself open and empathetic to his subjects, even when they are perhaps a little tense and annoyed at having to be still for so long; even when they are analyzing him and by extension the viewer. On an almost subliminal level, one senses that Moroni’s subjects are aware that time is passing, and there are a lot more rewarding things one can be doing besides getting your portrait done.

In three of the four portraits — the understandable exception being the inward looking “Abbess Lucrezia Agliardi Vertova” — the sitter’s scrutiny meets ours and the result is a stand-off; they are reticent and enigmatic, as well as slightly stressed. Moroni is a tonalist working within a narrow color range (blacks, grays, and browns), which he pops open with white ruffles around the neck.

This is how Schwartz describes Moroni’s portraits of the young man and girl:

What also feels fresh and modern — and capable of making earlier commentators believe there was something obdurate or lacking in Moroni — is the unusually straightforward, almost anonymous, nature of his realism. Just as his subject seems to be consciousness itself — or people in states of sheer mental readiness, uncolored by one definite thought — so his formal approach appears to be untouched by any personal inflections or mannerisms. He didn’t make eyes or noses or the length of a sitter’s face in an identifiable “Moroni style,” but, rather, delineated forms in a way that is close to some normative idea of representation that we carry in our heads.

*   *   *

I was particularly struck by the phrase, “the unusually straightforward, almost anonymous, nature of his realism.” By not developing a style, Moroni was able to become “almost anonymous” in his representations. Style, it could be said, is related to caricature, going from the exaggerated (Alice Neel) to the elegant (Alex Katz) to the photographic (Andy Warhol). Moroni’s non-style brought to mind a comment I have heard a number of painters make: There is no progress in art.

Two things occurred to me. The first is that artists who resist developing a style are more likely to be overlooked than those who do, and that style is often mistakenly equated with progress. But the artists who resist branding themselves through style, and who do not believe that there is progress in art, go directly against the teachings of art historians as distinct as Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Hal Foster, Clement Greenberg and Rosalind Krauss, and their many students who work in the field of art history as teachers, critics, and curators. These artists are likely to fly under the radar because they refuse to either brand themselves or align themselves with the death of painting narrative and become machine-like in their work or, better yet, use a machine to make their work.

Giovanni Battista Moroni, ”Abbess Lucrezia Agliardi Vertova” (1557). Oil on canvas, 36 x 27 inches (click to enlarge)

For decades now, Buchloh and others have vehemently advanced and supported the narrative in which painting is dead or an obsolete practice. In fact, the inhospitable situation for painting, at least on an institutional level, has become so deeply entrenched and widespread that Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz — to their credit — have on more than one occasion called out museum curators, challenging them to state how much they hate painting, but to no avail. Better to show one or two examples in big group shows and act like you care when you actually don’t.

(I remember a number of grad students in the Bard curatorial program telling me that they couldn’t look at painting because they grew up in an era of videos, photography, and performance. All of these people are now working as curators.)

*   *   *

Moroni’s figures seem to exist in the same world that we do, rather than in an idealized one. He eschews flattery in favor of hard, unsentimental looking. This is particularly true of the two paintings from the Accademia Carrara, where the surroundings are abstract grounds, which anticipate Edouard Manet’s “Young Lady in 1866” (1866). Both Moroni and Manet, in his pre-Impressionist period, have a similar palette, influenced by Spanish fashion (for Moroni) and art (for Manet).  The other affinity is the animating role the hands play in their work.

In “Bartolommeo Bonghi, the subject is seated in a chair, which is more-or-less parallel to the picture plane. He is holding a book in the hand closest to us, with his forearm and elbow resting on the chair’s wooden arm. He has turned to look directly at the artist. Although it is not obvious, the way the book is open suggests that he is using his finger to keep his place; that getting his portrait painted is an interruption. I was reminded of the young woman in Manet’s “The Railway” (1872–73), who is using her fingers to mark two places in the book she is holding, as she looks up at an unseen passerby.

In “Abbess Lucrezia Agliardi Vertova”, the subject is holding an open prayer book, with both hands resting on a surface. The index finger of her left hand is separate from the other three fingers, as if it is making an involuntary gesture that the introspective Abbess isn’t even aware of.

Giovanni Battista Moroni, “Portrait of a Little Girl of the Redetti Family” (ca. 1570). Oil on canvas, 15 3/4 x 12 5/8 inches (click to enlarge)

Both serious and enchanting, the young Redetti girl is loosely grasping her pearl necklace between her thumb and index finger, which has slipped through the loop to touch her blouse. Each of her five fingers is in a distinct and different position, as if every digit is capable of having its own thoughts. Our attention moves up and down, from the girl’s hands to her self-possessed appraisal of the painter. She isn’t the least bit cowed by this prolonged encounter with an adult, which adds just the right note of gravity to the painting.

*   *   *

Moroni’s attention to hands is most noticeable in his painting of the tailor, from London’s National Gallery, in which the subject’s head is tilted down even as he looks directly at us, making some kind of calculation. Holding a large pair of scissors in one hand and pulling taut a corner of the cloth with the other, he is taking our measure, just as we are taking his. It is a deeply human gesture that the artist registers, the desire to claim the space you inhabit and make sure anyone looking at you knows it. Moroni lives in an all too familiar world in which everyone is constantly sizing each other up.

Bellini, Titian, and Lotto: Northern Italian Paintings from the Accademia Carrarra, Bergamo continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 3.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...

2 replies on “The Modernity of Giovanni Battista Moroni (1524–1578)”

  1. I really enjoyed this piece, your love for the subject is clearly communicated and I doubt I’ll walk past Moroni in the future.

    the young woman in Manet’s “The Railway”

    …is Victorine Meurent, “Olympia” herself about a decade on.

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