Pontormo, Brexit and the National Gallery

by Noti Klagka and Barbara Pezzini

man in black.jpegThe sale of Jacopo Pontormo’s Portrait of a Young Man in Black (illustrated here) has been recently made popular by the British press, which described it as a potentially lost national treasure and a victim of the consequences of Brexit. Its vicissitudes have also been narrated in a Burlington Magazine Editorial dated April 2017.[1]

The portrait has a very recent history. In 2008 Francis Russell, deputy chairman at the Christie’s, attributed it to Pontormo. The portrait had been since 1825 in the collection of the Earls of Caledon in Northern Ireland. It was then ascribed to Alessandro Allori. Russell published this discovery in the Burlington Magazine October issue of that year.[2] He identified the painting as the Portrait of Carlo Neroni, one of the two portraits painted by Pontormo at the time of the 1530 siege of Florence. The other is the Portrait of Francesco Guardi, known as ‘the Getty Halberdier’ (Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California) (illustrated here).[3] Since 2008 the Portrait of Carlo Neroni was on loan at the National Gallery from the Earl of Caledon.

halberdier.jpegBut, as Tom Marks writes in Apollo, ‘in spite of the owner’s assurances that he would not sell the painting while it was on loan, and the principle of providing three months’ notice of any intention to sell – which would have granted a public collection the opportunity to purchase the work at a favourable, tax-deducted price through private treaty sale – the painting was sold for around £30 million while on loan, and the new owner swiftly applied to export it.’[4] The price was soon revealed to be £30.7 million and the owner an American hedge fund manager, J. Tomlison ‘Tom’ Hill (Hill is said to have inspired Gordon Gekko, the fictional tycoon played by Michael Douglas in the film Wall Street).[5]

As the Art Newspaper reported, after purchasing the painting, the buyer applied for a UK export licence, which in December 2015 was deferred by the UK government to allow a museum in Britain the chance to raise funds to acquire the work.[6] The National Gallery succeeded in finding the money and in 2016 made a £30.7m matching offer.[7] But, after much waiting, in February 2017 Tom Hill refused the offer.[8] This was probably because when Hill bought the painting the value of the British pound against the US dollar was much higher.[9] By accepting the £30.7m matching offer Hill would have lost around £5m, because of the British currency’s steep fall in value, particularly following the Brexit referendum. Hill’s refusal means that under the current export rules he cannot export the painting from the UK or apply for another export licence for the work for 10 years.

Why does it matter? Why is it so important to keep this particular painting in Britain?’ asked Jonathan Jones of the Guardian, his question perhaps echoing the views of some of his readers. [10] Because the portrait is, as Jones himself suggested, a moving document of politics and history, and this blog post will briefly narrate the circumstances around its creation. Moreover, it will attempt to explain why Pontormo’s work is commanding such high sums.

The siege of Florence of 1530, which ended tragically with the fall of the Florentine Republic, was a pivotal moment for the history of Florence, the life of Pontormo, and the development of Renaissance art. Yet none of these historical facts had a significant influence on the height of the portrait’s price. The Getty certainly set a precedent, when in 1989 paid Christies the amount of $35.2 million for the acquisition of the more elaborate Portrait of a Halberdier by Pontormo. At the time, according to the New York Times, the price ‘more than tripled the previous record at auction for an Old Master painting’.[11] Thomas Hoving, commenting from his ‘My Eye’ column in The Connoisseur, sarcastically congratulated the Getty on the acquisition of this ‘piggy eyed bravo who stares us down with Renaissance imperiousness’.[12]

deposition.jpegThe portrait was not yet considered a historical document at the time, as the Getty did not buy it as a portrait of Francesco Guardi, but as a portrait of Cosimo I de Medici, an identification completely inconsistent with all the existing facts, as very thoroughly proved by Elizabeth Cropper who first identified the sitter as Francesco Guardi in her monograph on the portrait, published eight years after the acquisition.[13]

What excited twentieth century art historians about Pontormo was the noticeable affinity of his personality and work, as portrayed by the sources, with the myth of the modern artist. His case is similar to Caravaggio’s, although Pontormo’s popularity developed to a lesser scale, and was founded around the other end of the spectrum: the artist’s intellect and imagination (disegno).

Vasari, in his 1568 edition of the Lives, described Pontormo as a solitary, secretive and melancholic individual, absorbed in his art and seriously troubled by it, unpredictable, with symptoms of what today is commonly known as bipolar disorder.[14] He was, according to Vasari, struggling to give life to imaginary forms and was driven to madness by his ambition to compete with Michelangelo. His late work in San Lorenzo was very much criticised by his Medici patrons, and Vasari himself, as excessively complicated, originating in his fascination with Michelangelo and in his insistence on creating something innovative.

Pontormo’s portrait by Vasari corresponded to the established in the twentieth century image of the avant-garde artist: a creative genius who struggled in solitude, neglected by his contemporaries.

Bellori’s seventeenth century account of Mannerism carried this conviction further. The Mannerist painters were criticised by Bellori, for completely neglecting nature, being too much absorbed in their imagination.[15] Mannerism’s re-discovery at the beginning of the twentieth century coincided with the development of expressionistic and abstract modes in modern art.[16] As a result, in contrast to Caravaggio’s painting which was interpreted as raw naturalism, the art of the painters who were described as mannerists was inextricably connected to the intellectual part of the artistic process, the disegno, a notion reinforced by the abundance of drawings left behind by the style’s representatives, especially Pontormo.

The artist’s diary, covering the last four years of his life, with trivial notes on his diet and his very limited social life and with scarce references to the progress of his now lost work in San Lorenzo, not only did not alter the image of the artist as a rare genius, but instead reinforced it. Pontormo’s lengthy references to cabbages, lamb and veal, Greek wine, bread and most of all his favourite ‘pesce di uovo’ a kind of omelette in the shape of a fish, were interpreted as symptoms of his eccentricity, his brilliance and his solitary struggle for invention. A series of publications concerning the artist’s psychology, and the publication of his diary, resulted in a significant rise in the painter’s popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. Dario Trento, in the late 1980s, little suspecting what would follow later with Caravaggio- referred to the phenomenon as ‘Pontormomania’.[17]

The artist’s reception as an intellectual, concerned only with matters of the mind, as well as the social connotations behind similar assumptions, are vividly illustrated in the reaction of Philip Costamagna, who in his 1994 monograph on the artist, seriously complained about the appearance of Pontormo’s art and diary replicas in the interior of a New York restaurant, as denigrating Pontormo to ‘an immigrant decorator of a second class restaurant’.[18] The art of Caravaggio and his followers, traditionally associated with raw and unadorned naturalism and the senses, very often decorated bars, cafes or restaurants without arousing similar reactions on the propriety of the matter.

The high sums paid for the portraits of Francesco Guardi and Carlo Neroni, are perhaps founded on the development of the artist’s reception around the myth of the modern artist and the emotional impact of Pontormo’s paintings on twenty-first century viewers who are already familiar with more abstract modes of representation.

Frederick Mortimer Clapp, the author of the first monograph on the artist, already in 1916, described his first encounter with the Capponi’s chapel Deposition (illustrated above here) as a life changing revelation,[19] and compared Pontormo’s style to Puvis de Chavannes poetic and austere forms.[20]

pontormo face two.jpegThe Portrait of Carlo Neroni looks far less emblematic than the Portrait of Francesco Guardi and stands out due to a spontaneity and sincerity in execution, which surpasses usual sixteenth century pictorial conventions. Neroni’s portrait is considered by Pontormo scholars ‘bolder, more astringent’,[21] with forceful modelling, full of drama and tension or even ‘brutal’.[22] This impression is created particularly by Pontormo’s bold handling of the young man’s facial features, which lack the porcelain elegance of Bronzino’s sitters and the idealisation detected in Pontormo’s other portraits. In fact, most of Pontormo’s protagonists, even those of his portraits, seem to share a variety of common features, particularly the eyes and their expression. Almond shaped and slightly protruding eyes (illustrated here), with round pupils, constituted the Morellian element in Pontormo’s paintings, a feature less apparent only when the naturalistic elements of his work prevailed, like in the frescoes of Poggio a Caiano or the Certosa del Galluzzo, executed, as suggested by Vasari and generally accepted, under the influence of Dürer’s prints.

The Portrait of Carlo Neroni is situated closer to Pontormo’s experiments with unadorned reality, nevertheless the last ones. The eyes of the young man continue to reveal, to a certain extend, Pontormo’s distinctive handling, but the rest of his physiognomy carries the austere and rather unrefined face of an ordinary man, beyond class, rank or other social distinction. Neroni as a defender of the Florentine Republic, might have chosen to be portrayed as a follower of Savonarola’s principals. It is not irrelevant that in the nineteenth century the sitter was identified as Masaniello, the seventeenth century Neapolitan revolutionary.[23]

Bronzino Venus.jpegIt is a shame that the Portrait of Carlo Neroni will not go to the National Gallery as Pontormo and Mannerism were appreciated in England much earlier then anywhere else in Europe. The National Gallery was purchasing Mannerist masterpieces in the 1860s, when the style was still considered repellent, derivative and decadent, especially by German scholarship, focused on antiquity and earlier Renaissance art.

Around the same time that Jacob Burckhardt wrote his famous Der Cicerone (1855),[24] a text which was very judgmental about Pontormo’s ‘decadent’ style, the National Gallery acquired with the Beaucousin Collection Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time (1860 (illustrated here).[25] In 1882, during the famous Hamilton Palace sale, the National Gallery purchased two works by Pontormo, including one of his most acclaimed works, the panel of Joseph with Jacob in Egypt (NG 1131).[26] Today the National Gallery owns five scenes from the cycle of The life of Joseph, displayed in a way which resembles the panoramic view of the bed chamber in Palazzo Borgherini in Rome, where the paintings were initially placed.

We hope that the Portrait of Carlo Neroni will eventually go to the National Gallery.

[1] J. Warren, Exports and acquisitions: tears or cheers?, The Burlington Magazine, Vol 159 No. 1369 (Apr. 2017), pp. 271-272.

[2] F. Russell, ‘Portrait of a young man in black by Pontormo’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 150, No.1267, Oct.2008, pp.675-677.

[3] Russell, pp. 675-677.

[4] T. Marks, ‘What Price for a Pontormo?’, Apollo, 16 December 2016.

[5] M. Bailey, ‘National Gallery’s acquisition of Pontormo portrait under threat’, The Art Newspaper, 24 November 2016. See also the comments by Bendor Grosvenor, http://www.arthistorynews.com/articles/4293_Brexit_threat_to_Pontormo and the UK government press release, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/lost-30m-masterpiece-now-at-risk-of-leaving-uk. On Hill, see R. Pogrebin, ‘A Millionaire is Opening a Private Museum in Manhattan, The New York Times, 28 July 2016; R. Brooks, ‘Brexit in frame as UK set to lose £30m Old Master’, The Sunday Times, 27 November 2016.

[6] Bailey, ‘National Gallery’. See the defer according the Waverly Criteria (no.2) here: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/experts_submission_Pontormo.pdf.

[7] M. Bailey, ‘London’s National Gallery close to buying £30m Pontormo portrait’, The Art Newspaper, 13 October 2016.

[8] J. Pickford and J. Espinoza, ‘Blackstone chief refuses National Gallery’s offer for painting’, The Financial Times, 7 February 2017; D. Alberge, ‘US billionaire defends refusal to sell £30m Pontormo painting’, The Guardian, 2 March 2017.

[9] N. Swanson, ‘National Gallery’s £30m Pontormo bid rejected owing to sterling slump’, The Guardian, 6 February 2017; M. Brown, ‘Call to reform UK art export rules after £30m Pontormo bid rejected’, The Guardian, 16 February 2017.

[10] J. Jones, ‘This painting is a masterpiece of love and war – Britain must break the bank to keep it’, The Guardian, 14 October, 2016.

[11] R. Reif, ‘Old Master auctioned for Record $35 Million’, New York Times, 1st June1989.

[12] T. Hoving, ‘My eye: successful bid on Pontormo’s Cosimo I de Medici’, Connoisseur, No. 219, 1989, p.27.

[13] E. Cropper, Pontormo, Portrait of a halberdier, Los Angeles, Getty Museum Studies on Art, 1997.

[14] G. Vasari, Le Vite, edited by R. Bettarini and P. Barocchi, Vol.V, Florence, S.P.E.S, 1984, pp.308,319, 328, 333.

[15] G.P. Bellori, Le vite de’ pittori, scultori e architetti moderni, ed. E. Borea, intr. by G. Previtali, Turin, Einaudi, 1976, p.21( ‘L’idea’), p.31 ( ‘Annibale Carracci’) etc.

[16] D. Posner, ‘Introduction’ to W. Friedlaender, Mannerism and Anti – Mannerism in Italian Painting, New York, Schocken books, 1965, p.xii.

[17] Dario Trento, ‘Due edizioni del diario di Pontormo e la ‘pontormomania’’, Ricerche di Storia dell’Arte, No.34, 1988, pp. 35-54.

[18] P. Costamagna, Pontormo, Milan, Electa, 1994, p.12.

[19] F. M. Clapp, Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, his life and work, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1916, p.xiii.

[20] F.M. Clapp, On Certain Drawings by Pontormo, Florence, R. Lastrucci, 1911, p.8. Already pointed out by E. Cropper, ‘The Decline and Rise of Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino: Mannerism and Modernity’, Diverging paths of Mannerism, ed. C. Falciani, A. Natali, Florence, Mandragora, 2014, p.344.

[21] Russell, p.676.

[22] E. Cropper, ‘On portraits by Rosso Fiorentino Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino’, Diverging paths of mannerism, ibid, p.124.

[23] Russell, p.675.

[24] J. Burckhardt, Der Cicerone: eine Anleitung zum Genuss der Kunstwerke Italiens, Leipzig, E.A. Seemann, 1884 (1855), pp.802-806.

[25] ‘Monty Pythons’, the internationally famous British comedy group, chose the Cupid’s foot as their logo.

[26] The other one (NG649) was a Portrait of a boy, today attributed to Bronzino.

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