Andrea del Sarto at the Frick: A Gorgeous Exhibition for an Overlooked Master

Sometimes, great treasures are not monumental and ornate; they’re small and intimate, whispering their power. Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action brings close to 50 exquisite drawings and three major paintings together to cast a light on one of the Italian Renaissance’s most enigmatic artists.

Photo2The Medici Holy Family, 1529

As can be seen in the exhibition, Andrea del Sarto’s (1486–1530) hand is accomplished, sure, subtle and sensitive. His skill was so prodigious that many of his works have been misattributed to da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael over the years. During the 16th century, del Sarto ran one of the most successful studios in Florence.

So, why, then, is this his first solo show in New York?

For one, over the centuries, he’s been outshined by many of his students. Mannerist masters Jacopo Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, and Cecchino Salviati studied with del Sarto. And, though he was dubbed as “the faultless painter” by Giorgio Vasari, whose “Lives of the Artists” was art history’s first installment, he was also drubbed by Vasari–judged as technically superior, but lacking in spirit.

Photo3Portrait of a Young Man, ca. 1517-18

Photo4Study of a Young Man (verso), ca. 1517–18

In this tiny sketch, curator Aimee Ng said, “Andrea takes one intense jab of the red chalk, and marks the left eye, and the power of that jab captures the whole look.”

Also, his reputation didn’t travel, since, as curator Aimee Ng pointed out, he lived in Florence almost all his life, (the “almost” being the most interesting part). There was one year that del Sarto moved away. His artistry was so highly regarded that he was invited to France by King Francis I. So pleased was Francis with the beauty and conventions of Florentine art as evinced by del Sarto, that he gave the artist a full purse with instructions to go back to Italy, build a collection, and then return. Del Sarto kept the cash, bought a house, and retired to leisure with his beautiful wife, whose entreaties were the impetus for his departure.  Many might agree it was a good idea to lay low under those circumstances. 

Photo5Study of the Head of a Woman, ca. 1525

By Vasari’s reckoning, the loveliest portraits of women made by Andrea del Sarto are based on the face of his wife.

 Though del Sarto’s backstory may be saucy, his art is sublime. The paintings are lovely, accomplished and powerful. But, it’s the drawings that dazzle. Together, they allow a peek into the past to watch a Renaissance workshop (del Sarto’s, at least) in action. The works on paper that fill two galleries downstairs capture an amazing naturalism. Fat babies, bulging muscles, and wrinkled eyes all can be seen, just as they are on the streets outside the museum. But the paintings, which depict patrons or holy figures, are idealized. It’s fascinating to watch del Sarto take real people and morph them into Renaissance superheroes.

“There’s a painting,” Ng pointed out (shown in the opening photo), “of the young John the Baptist. It’s gorgeous, beautiful, and sensuous. We have the fortune of being able to show the head study in black chalk…If you look at the drawing you can see this young kid who was guest sitting in the artist’s studio. The artist is telling him ‘okay, just pose’ and he’s capturing something that doesn’t end up in the painting. He’s looking askance,” she described, “kind of furrowing his brow. He looks a little bit nervous, a little bit self-conscious. You really see that there is an adolescent boy sitting in front of an artist who was staring at his face. That all goes away in the painting. In the painting you have a sacred figure who’s looking confidently up, receiving divine light. So these drawings have their own story.”

Through the magic of the artist’s sensitivity and ability, it’s possible to share a moment with a young man who subsequently aged, and then died, some five centuries ago. Under del Sarto’s touch, a gesture or a tilt of the head can reach across time. The artist’s own hand can be sensed in the various ways he either softened or strengthened his lines and shadows, creating subtle passages and shifts of light and dark. The changes as del Sarto thought and rethought his compositions come through time and again, as does his ability to utilize limited tools to tell very big stories.

Photo6Study of a Nude Man Seen from Behind, Leaning on a Surface, and a Separate Study of His Head, ca. 1520

Those stories, as well as some of the story of Andrea and his pretty wife will be expanded upon in complementary programs including lectures, performances, and gallery talks.

The Frick is the ideal place to see del Sarto’s delicate virtuosity. It needs intimate viewing and time, perfect for the close, domestic dimensions of the museum. The presentation in the Oval Room was designed by Ng and her colleagues so that the viewer could see, just as the artist himself did, both the sketch, and at an arm’s length distance, the painting for which it’s preparing. The thoughts worked out on paper can be seen, right there, as they’re realized in paint.

The one cloud around this silver lining is that, until the Frick is able to expand its galleries, when the Oval Room or any of its other galleries is filled with special exhibitions, the Frick’s own treasures must come down.

Photo7Five Studies for a Lunette with the Virgin and Child, ca. 1525

Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action, which runs through January 10th, is filled with rare loans from the Louvre, the Uffizi Gallery, the Palazzo Pitti, as well from collections across Europe and the U.S., including the Getty Museum where the show, co-organized by Julian Brooks, premiered this summer. To see these masterpieces again will require traveling half the globe. Rather, the Frick offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to discover striking works of quiet humanity brought to life by the hand of a great Renaissance artist.

Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action
The Frick Collection
1 East 70th Street

All Photos by Adel Gorgy

Opening Photo: Study for the Head of St. John the Baptist, ca. 1523, Black chalk, 13 x 9 1/8 in. (33 x 23.1 cm) on loan from the National Gallery of Art, Washington and St. John the Baptist, ca. 1523, Oil on panel, 37 x 26 3/4 in. (94 x 68 cm), Collection of the Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina, Florence

The Medici Holy Family, 1529, Oil on panel, 55 1/8 x 40 15/16 inches, Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina, Florence

Portrait of a Young Man, ca. 1517-18, Oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 22 1/2 inches, National Gallery, London

Study of a Young Man (verso), ca. 1517–18, Red chalk, 5 1/8 x 4 15/16 inches, Galleria degli Uffizi, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Florence

Study of the Head of a Woman, ca. 1525, Black chalk, 5 3?16 × 4 5?16 inches, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Study of a Nude Man Seen from Behind, Leaning on a Surface, and a Separate Study of His Head, ca. 1520, Red chalk, with some black chalk, 11 x 6 15/16 in. (27.9 x 17.7 cm), The British Museum

Five Studies for a Lunette with the Virgin and Child, ca. 1525, Red chalk, 11 3/8 x 10 1/4 in. (28.9 x 26.1 cm), The British Museum