LORENZO LOTTO – PORTRAITS National Gallery, to 10th February
GAINSBOROUGH’S FAMILY ALBUM
National Portrait Gallery, 22nd November to 3rd February
The more one looks at, or rather into, a portrait by Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1557), the more intriguing it becomes and the more one finds to admire.
The same is true of his religious paintings (group portraits in narrative form), since they are all full of symbols, rebuses, allusions and incidents that illuminate the sitter or the subject. This was fashionable at the time, and not all are easy for us to read – nor were they always easy for contemporaries. Vasari once had to write a letter of explanation to a sitter whose portrait he had loaded with symbols.
Lotto was a great painter of not just faces but also hands, which many artists preferred to hide away. Gestures are also important in showing the life of his subjects. Flowers are often part of his stories. In Portrait of a Woman Inspired by Lucretia, there is a sprig of stocks or wallflowers ( Erysimum cheiri) on the table beside her. The flower may symbolise love, but the Italian violaciocca implies ravishment as well as romance (a snippet that I owe to a friend of my colleague David Wheeler). Elsewhere one finds jasmine, ivy and roses, along with jewels, scientific instruments, scales, books and documents with pertinent inscriptions.
Architects and craftsmen, such as a crossbow-maker, have the tools of their trades. Oddly, the collector Andrea Odoni is surrounded by casts and models that appear to have been Lotto’s rather than his. This is a portrait that Vasari, who was an admirer of Lotto in so far as he admired any non-florentine artist, singled out for praise.
Although he was at one time a follower of Bellini, this show is very much more than a pendant to the National Gallery’s overlapping Mantegna and Bellini show.
It has been organised with the Prado, where it has already been seen, and includes many of his best works from around the world, together with drawings and related objects, including a Turkish carpet of the sort that was one of his trademarks.
Included are such masterpieces as the Portrait of Bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi (1505), from the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, and the monumental altarpiece of The Alms of St Antoninus of Florence (1540-2) from Santi Giovanni e Paulo in Venice, coming to the UK for the first time. Here Lotto not only inserted portraits of members of the commissioning confraternity but also, highly unusually, paid poor people to sit for him. The Elderly Gentleman with Gloves (1542-4) is ‘widely regarded as one of Lotto’s finest portraits – and therefore as one of the finest portraits in Italian Renaissance painting’. It is no doubt because his patrons were not princes or great aristocrats that he was able to produce such perceptive and convincing characters. He was a powerful colourist and a truly great painter of faces.
The National Portrait Gallery celebrates another great face-painter in a show devoted to Gainsborough’s studies of his family, including their dogs.
Several of the 50 or so works have never been shown in Britain, including an early portrait of his father. Others, such as The Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly (c 1756) and The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat (c 1760-1), have come only from next door, but are given new resonance by being seen in the sequence from childhood to apotheosis, as elegant, young women sadly doomed to die early.
‘Column A is things they said would kill you ten years ago but are now considered totally good for you. Column B is things they currently think will kill you’