Perfect Painter Andrea del Sarto at the frick

| 16 Oct 2015 | 02:39

Andrea d’Agnolo (1486-1530), better known as Andrea del Sarto because he was the son of a tailor (sarto), ran the largest and most productive workshop in Florence in the early 1500s. In his lifetime, he was a star, patronized by the Medicis and ranked with the likes of Michelangelo. But that changed after he died of plague at 43 and became the subject of a poisonous account in former pupil Giorgio Vasari’s famous “Lives of the Artists,” published in 1550.

Vasari conceded in his long biographical sketch that del Sarto painted perfectly, “senza errori” — without errors. But he dubbed him “timid” and suggested he lacked ambition and an innovative style. And he criticized his excessive devotion to his wife, Lucrezia, the model for almost all his Madonnas.

As Aimee Ng, associate curator at the Frick, summarized Vasari’s written portrait of the artist at a recent preview of the show: “He could have been a better artist if not for his wife. He used her face too often.”

The zingers stuck and del Sarto’s reputation faded for centuries until recent scholarship showed that Vasari’s account was not true, the curator said. Now the Frick, in collaboration with The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, is staging a gorgeous exhibit of his drawings and paintings in an attempt to give the master his due.

“He deserves more recognition,” Ian Wardropper, the Frick’s director, remarked at the preview.

The exhibit is being billed as the first major monographic exhibit of this eclipsed artist’s works in the U.S. Fresh from a summer run at the Getty, the three paintings and 45 drawings (all loans) are presented in the Oval Room and lower-level galleries, with the latter the starting point.

Descend the winding staircase and what follows is a dizzying succession of figure studies, head studies and rare compositional studies, more than half in red chalk, a favored medium for its tonal range. The drawings, some highly finished but many rough sketches, are walkups to the paintings and a window on the creative process.

“The road to Andrea’s faultless paintings was paved with drawings,” Ng said during a lively tour of the works on paper, virtually all executed with an eye to fulfilling his workshop’s numerous commissions for portrait paintings, frescoes and altarpieces.

Del Sarto drew from life, using his wife and studio assistants in abundance, but he also drew from art — marble sculptures were a key source of inspiration. But regardless of the source, the works come alive and convey a sense of drama, emotion and psychological intensity.

Because practice makes perfect, this faultless painter was constantly revising and reworking the drawings. As Ng said standing before a wall with six chalk studies for the altarpiece “Madonna of the Steps”: “He draws and re-draws to get the parts perfect.” And because it was expedient, he reused drawings, too.

The Getty’s Julian Brooks, the exhibit’s chief curator, later told a packed auditorium at the museum that del Sarto “was absolutely as famous as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, [but] none of those masters drew like this,” a reference to his shorthand strokes and abstracted way of rendering the human figure in a drawing of Evangelists. He produced sculptural effects via his “emphasis on outline as he sort of carves the figures from the paper.”

This tailor’s son was raised in a tailor’s shop and was “looking at fabrics constantly,” Brooks said, hence the preoccupation with the colors of garments and “the observation of how they fall.”

Pieces like the head of Julius Caesar have the look of “a finished painting,” Ng observed, noting its extreme refinement. The same could be said for “Study for the Head of Saint John the Baptist” (ca. 1523), a black chalk portrait of an adolescent boy that graces the Oval Room and accompanies the show’s painting of Florence’s patron saint.

Another standout: “Study of the Head of a Young Woman” (ca. 1523), a delicate, red chalk drawing of Mary Magdalene, the repentant prostitute who dried Jesus’ feet with her hair after bathing them with her tears. Her head is bowed, and strands of hair frame her face in an allusion to this act of devotion.

But “Portrait of a Young Man” (ca. 1517-18), a dark, secular painting in the Oval Room, is surely the show’s most enigmatic piece. The work may or may not be a self-portrait, with the object the subject holds, a key to his identity, in dispute (a marble block, a brick, a book?). What is certain is the identity of the painter—see the monogram, two interlocking “A”s on the upper left, for Andrea d’Agnolo—and the brilliant play of light.

Our tour guide giddily acknowledged the “Andrea del Sarto mania” gripping the city this fall: The Metropolitan Museum is hosting a complementary exhibit focused on two related paintings—“Borgherini Holy Family” (ca. 1528) and “Charity” (before 1530).

Catch the spirit.