I’ve recently been to Frick Madison to see its newest acquisition – Portrait of a Woman by Italian Renaissance portrait painter Giovanni Battista Moroni (1520/24–1579/80). The painting is really stellar, and I find it a wonderful addition to the museum’s celebrated collection. While it’s unfortunate that we don’t know more details about its backstory, the commanding presentation of its unidentified subject stands out even without explanation.
For those of you who have been taking my courses or following my art appreciation tips and activities, here is a chance to see how I interpret an artwork for myself after both contemplating the painting in person and reflecting on it afterwards.
Portrait of a Woman is a half-length oil portrait (the sitter is shown from the waist up) of a young woman with ornate Renaissance clothing and a forceful facial expression. She has pale skin with rosy cheeks, brown eyes, and curly, brownish-red hair pinned up in some kind of braid. She wears a pink-and-orange brocade dress with buttons, white under-sleeves, and a white lace collar that frames her face. She also sports a thick gold necklace, hanging earrings, and hair ornaments of gold and pearls. Moroni was famous for skillfully depicting the jewels and rich fabrics worn by Italian Renaissance elites, so the textures here are luminous and convincing. The woman fills nearly the whole composition, with a small amount of nondescript background visible around her head. She is well lit; shadows are present but not dramatic.
By far, the most notable feature of this painting is the woman’s assertive gaze towards the viewer, which can be read as suspicious, judgmental, or even a bit confrontational. That she feels like a real person with an individual personality is what made this portrait memorable for me. I enjoy connecting with the humanity of the people I see in artworks, and it was really easy in this case. I could completely imagine leaving the museum and seeing this woman on the streets of Manhattan, giving this exact same expression to someone who stole the taxi she’d just flagged down. I’ve recently advised museum visitors to imagine what it would be like to talk with the people in the paintings, and I’m sure you could script quite the conversation with this one!
The Mystery Woman
It’s truly unfortunate that this sitter’s identity has been lost to history, because we don’t know if her real-life personality was as confident and commanding as her portrait suggests. The mystery is rather juicy, but it would be wonderful if we knew something about this woman. It would also be nice to have some idea of the painting’s circumstances, like why it was commissioned and where it originally hung. That might explain a lot about why the painting looks the way it does, or alternately, it might raise more questions. Her rich clothes and jewels tell us she was wealthy but give no clues to her identity or the impression she wanted to project to others. Some portraits use clothing pieces, props, and backgrounds to symbolically suggest things about the sitter’s character, like their wisdom or piety, but nothing here really fits that bill. According to the Frick’s online collection information, we don’t even know anything about the painting’s provenance until the 20th century.
This lack of information about the painting’s origin puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to interpretation. Fortunately, we know plenty about its broader historical context, and in that context, the portrait is quite unusual. Italian Renaissance female portraits don’t tend to be anywhere near this commanding and individualistic. Some Renaissance women don’t even show their entire face to the viewer, never mind look directly at them with such assertive expressions. Their clothing, jewels, and hairstyles are often given more visual attention and differentiation than their faces. I’m not saying that they all look like zombies or mannequins, but few suggest vibrant presences to the degree seen in this portrait.
Commissioning and sitting for a portrait like this would have been neither cheap nor quick. Therefore, this unconventional portrayal must have been a deliberate choice; it was not a whim of the artist, nor did it reflect a temporary mood on the part of the sitter. That being said, Moroni is generally known for his expressive and lifelike portraits of Italian nobility. Although he did not paint many individual female portraits, my quick research found that they all tend to be fairly bold, though perhaps not as much as this one. Thus, it seems likely the patron (likely the sitter or a member of her family) chose Moroni specifically because they wanted this effect.
Without more information, we can only speculate on who this assertive look is intended for and why. I like to imagine it might have been a wedding or courtship portrait (a common reason for a Renaissance woman to have her portrait made) and she was letting her prospective husband know that she would be in charge within the marriage. (But I really have no evidence for that whatsoever.) It’s also tempting to imagine that this expression reflects the dynamic between her and Moroni, much like a younger girl’s power struggle with John Singer Sargent was memorialized in a similar expression several centuries later.
At Frick Madison, Portrait of a Woman currently hangs on the third floor with the rest of the Italian Renaissance artworks. She has her own little niche between two larger portraits by Titian. She is the Frick’s first and only female portrait from the Italian Renaissance, though the museum doesn’t lack for female portraiture of other eras. She is also the smallest painting in the room, and yet she more than holds her own against these larger male presences. I can easily imagine her being perfectly capable of winning an argument against the cocky Lodovico Capponi in Bronzino’s famous portrait across the room. I wonder what permanent spot she will find in the Frick’s renovated mansion, since the museum does not typically display art in time-and-place order the way it does at Frick Madison. I would be quite curious to see how she would fare in the company of her younger sisters amongst the French and English female portraits.
See it for yourself
Giovanni Battista Moroni’s Portrait of a Woman was a recent gift to the Frick Collection from the trust of the late Assadour O. Tavitian, a longtime Frick supporter. Previously, it had been loaned to the Frick as a major star of the museum’s 2019 exhibition about Moroni, which you can get a small sense of from a virtual tour and a video of a great lecture by curator Aimee Ng. The latter resource told me basically everything I know about Moroni. Now owned by the museum, the portrait has been on display on the third floor at Frick Madison since January 12, 2023.
Visit the Frick’s website to find more details about the museum or click here to read my thoughts on the collection’s temporary home in the Breuer Building on Madison Ave. There is a Frick Madison virtual tour, but it was filmed before this recent acquisition. If you visit, please let me know your interpretation of this mysterious woman, who you think she’s glaring at and why, and how you think she would get along with her new neighbors at the Frick!