According to his former student Giorgio Vasari, Andrea del Sarto was a “most excellent” artist “in whose one person nature and art showed all that painting could do through drawing, color, and originality; so much so that, if Andrea had been as fierce and daring in spirit as he was profoundly clever and judicious in this art, he would have had no equals.” Despite its reservations, this is no small tribute: Andrea’s contemporaries, the ones he had the potential to outdo, included no less than Raphael, Michelangelo, and Titian. Furthermore, his Florentine studio eventually played host to several shining lights of the next artistic generation, from Jacopo da Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino to Vasari himself—a good painter, a superb architect, and a writer to be reckoned with. Vasari’s Lives of the Most Illustrious Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (first published in 1550 and revised in 1568), sparkling in its style, packed full of insights and anecdotes (not all of them true), continues to delight readers and shape opinions to this day, including the general impression that Andrea del Sarto is an excellent artist, but not perhaps an artist of the very first rank.
From late June until early January 2016, however, visitors to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Frick Collection in New York can assess for themselves the artist’s talents as a draftsman and painter. Andrea del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action is the first American exhibition devoted solely to this influential artist and teacher. The times may be right for a greater appreciation of Andrea’s talents, which included early training as a goldsmith, like many of his colleagues. Vasari’s opinion was colored by his own role as one of the shapers of a distinctively over-the-top Florentine artistic style fostered in the mid-16th century by the city’s shrewd, image-conscious ruler, Duke Cosimo de’ Medici (born 1519, reigned 1537–1574). A proponent of triumphant artifice, Vasari was bound to find Andrea’s work just a bit too simple, too undecorated. As the student noted about his teacher, “He lacked the ornaments, grandeur, and variety of styles that many other painters developed.” To contemporary tastes, however, that very simplicity may count as a virtue. With a few unerring strokes of black chalk or his favorite red chalk, Andrea can round out a head in three dimensions, or suggest a young man’s wisp of beard, an old man’s thinning hair, or the shaggy tail of a donkey. He can trace the profile of a hawk-nosed soldier or a chubby baby with equal assurance, or sketch out the design of a complex altarpiece as an interlocking nest of geometries. No wonder later painters such as Edgar Degas and Odilon Redon were inspired by his example: Andrea del Sarto could create a person, a space, an event with a handful of powerful, shapely lines.
Vasari himself had nothing but praise for Andrea’s masterly technique:
His figures, albeit simple and pure, are nonetheless well thought out, without error, of the utmost perfection in every respect; his heads of children and women have a natural and graceful air; those of his youths and old men have a marvelous vivacity and immediacy. The drapery is marvelously beautiful, and the nudes well understood. And although he drew simply, his colors are rare and truly divine.
The exhibition makes a special point of gathering together the preliminary sketches for particular paintings with the paintings themselves, including an unfinished but beautifully colored Sacrifice of Isaac and the monumental Medici Holy Family, so that, in the words of curator Julian Brooks, visitors can see every stage of creation, from a “first idea” jotted down on paper to “last-minute adjustments” made to an almost-finished oil painting. Grinding his own pigments, Andrea produced a particularly vibrant range of colors, from gentle dove grays to hot salmon pinks (a legacy from Michelangelo), applied with a distinctive soft edge. His modeling of faces and figures draws both from Leonardo’s subtle sfumato shadowing and Raphael’s reduction of irregular natural shapes to pure abstract geometry.
From his own perspective as a hard-driving court artist, Vasari may have argued that “a certain timidity of spirit, and his rather modest, simple nature” kept Andrea del Sarto from attaining “a certain lively ardor, or that fierce pride, which, when added to all his other talents, would have made him truly divine as a painter.” Perhaps after all these centuries, however, the lively ardor of this strong, quiet artist will finally show through to its full effect.
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