Italian Treasure, American Albatross: The Perils Of Purchasing A Pontormo

For some time now, I’ve been following an international tug of war over a striking 16th century portrait by the Italian Mannerist painter Pontormo (1494-1557). The painting was purchased by a prominent American art collector from a British aristocrat two years ago. Unfortunately, what has happened since then exposes why American collectors – even those collecting objects that are far less valuable – need to be wary of doing business in other countries.

Pontormo lived in Florence for most of his life, where he studied with Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Sarto, among others. He’s known for his unusual religious paintings and portraiture, where his figures often have both elongated proportions, and a somewhat pensive mood that reflects his own melancholy nature. His more famous pupil Bronzino (1503-1572) took up many elements of his master’s style, and eventually became *the* society portraitist of the day. But whereas Pontormo’s portraits always seem a bit sad and introspective, Bronzino’s were all about slick self-confidence. Toward the end of his life, Pontormo produced fewer and fewer paintings, and turned in on himself to such an extent that even Bronzino couldn’t get in to see him.

Portraits by Pontormo rarely come on the market, as there are only about a dozen plus in existence, and most of these are in Italian museums. This particular image of Florentine nobleman Carlo Neroni disappeared sometime in the 18th century, but was rediscovered by an art expert back in 2008. It had been purchased by the 3rd Earl of Caledon in 1825 and passed down through his family, who had no idea what they had. The painting was loaned to the National Gallery in London, until the 7th Earl decided to sell his newly-discovered treasure. In 2015, it was purchased by American hedge fund executive J. Tomlinson Hill of Blackstone Group, for somewhat over £30 million.

Yet despite the fact that Mr. Hill is now the rightful owner of this Pontormo, matters have conspired to prevent him from doing what he wants with his property.

To begin with, Mr. Hill cannot take his painting back to the U.S., without first obtaining an art export license from the British government. This is an issue faced by American collectors around the world, not just in Britain, and not just among those with Mr. Hill’s means at their disposal. Age and value are both considerations, but in the UK, art created as recently as 1967 may require an export license, if you want to bring it back to the States.

Even if you apply for an art export license however, while you are waiting to hear if it will be approved by the British government, a British museum has the right to attempt to purchase the object from you for the price you paid for it. You don’t have to sell, but then there’s no telling what might happen to your request for an export license, either. It puts the art collector into something between a rock and a hard place.

The fact that you might be able to get your money back seems like a good option. Unfortunately for Mr. Hill, the value of the pound has declined significantly since he bought the painting in 2015 and began his long wait for a decision regarding his export license. As a result, he could lose millions of dollars if he‘s forced to sell the painting to a British art museum today.

To me, there’s something rather illogical about this situation, and it should give Americans pause before purchasing art or antiques abroad.

What, exactly, have the Brits prevented from leaving their country that’s so vitally important to their national heritage? To begin with, they didn’t even know this painting existed until recently. It isn’t as if Mr. Hill purchased a statue which stood on the façade of one of the countless cathedrals that the British stole from the Catholic church, or that he managed to pick up the bed that Princess (Alexandrina) Victoria was sleeping in at Kensington Palace when she learned that William IV had died and she was now Queen.

In fact, this painting has absolutely nothing to do with Britain whatsoever, other than the historical accident of its being located there. Pontormo was not a British artist. The subject of this painting was not a British person. The art was not even created for a British collector.

At some point in the past, someone stole or purchased this painting in Italy, and it somehow ended up being resold to a collector in the UK. It lay completely forgotten and unnoticed in the private home of a British noble family for nearly two centuries, until it was temporarily loaned to a public museum a few years ago. That, in sum, is the full extent of this painting’s tenuous connection to the British people, whose tax dollars were supposed to go toward purchasing it for a public museum.

Now granted, giving a country the chance to hold on to its cultural heritage is better than the alternative, for there are many objects in our museums – including British ones – which were stolen from other countries in order to enrich individual and national collections. However a reasonable person would conclude that there’s a difference between denying an export license for, say, a George Stubbs painting of a British racehorse, or a Hans Holbein portrait of one of Henry VIII’s courtiers, and denying an export license for a work of art which has no real connection to Britain at all. I find it difficult to fathom the argument that somehow a British museum or collector has a greater moral right to purchase this painting than does an American.

The latest news on this debacle is that Mr. Hill’s application for an export license has just been denied, and he’s also turned down the UK National Gallery’s offer to purchase the painting. He could of course try for another export license in about ten years, but that possibility seem unlikely to succeed. And I doubt very much that he would want to go through this hassle all over again a decade from now, particularly since this very rare work of art isn’t going to be getting any less valuable in the interim.

Instead of obtaining a jewel for his art collection, and one which, given his years of philanthropic support of American museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, would likely have gone to an American institution at some point in the future, Mr. Hill has now found himself with something of an albatross – albeit a very beautiful one. 

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Who’s That? Let’s Play Art Detective

Recently a reader asked if I could help identify a painting of an unknown lady. The woman in the picture bore many of the hallmarks of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, but I could not be sure that it was her. I also, rather cheekily, disagreed with an expert who had previously looked at the painting and concluded that it was 17th century, when to my eye it looked more like a 19th century Elizabethan Revival painting, designed to evoke the Tudor era for the purposes of interior decoration. I will always defer to an actual art expert of course, as I sit back and scoff in my big leather armchair, but in my response I had to explain to my interlocutor that it is often very difficult for any art historian to figure out who is being represented in an older work of art, unless the sitter’s identity has been clearly marked or documented.

Today being the birthday of Jacopo “Tintoretto” Comin (1518-1594), it seems appropriate to select a work by this Venetian Old Master painter to illustrate just how difficult identification in art can be. The painting I’ve chosen is artistically interesting, particularly for those of you interested in military history, but as we shall see we often can’t answer the question, “Who’s that?” – even in the case of an artist as famous as Tintoretto.

The portrait shown below dates from about 1555-56, and is in the collection of the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. It depicts a gentleman in his 30’s or 40’s with a slightly reddish, forked beard, wearing steel armor with gold decoration, who is standing before an open window in a palace. In the background, a Venetian galley and another ship are heading out to sea under stormy skies. At the base of the column on the right we can see part of a date, but the picture appears to have been trimmed down slightly, so we can’t be sure of the exact number written there.

One possible reading of this painting by art experts, including the Kunsthistoriches Museum, is that the date on the column originally read “1540”. In looking at the historical record of what was going on in Venice at the time, this date could mean that the painting was related to the signing of a peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice in that year, which brought to an end what was known as the Third Ottoman-Venetian War (1537-1540). However as this treaty marked a humiliating defeat for Venice at the time, this hypothesis seems unlikely to me.

More likely – said the armchair historian – this painting has something to do with the founding in 1550 of the “Fanti da Mar”, the Venetian Marines Infantry Corps. They came to be as a reaction against the military losses that Venice had been suffering at the hands of the Turks during much of the 1500’s. Interestingly enough, the Fanti da Mar later became the San Marco Regiment, which itself was the foundation for the modern-day Italian Marines.

The armor depicted in the painting is that traditionally worn by commanders of the Fanti da Mar at the time, as shown in a later painting by Tintoretto of Sebastiano Venier, commander of the Venetian Marines at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and future Doge of Venice. This portrait cannot be of Venier himself however, since at the time it was supposedly painted he was already in his 60’s. Moreover, at this point he was not yet commanding the Venetian Marines. 

A more likely candidate would be the condottieri (mercenary) Astorre Il Baglioni (1526-1571), who was hired by Venice in 1556 to fortify the Venetian mainland against the Turks and made Governor of Verona. That would make him exactly the right age and general profession for this picture, and a somewhat crude portrait of Baglioni from this time shows a man in his 40’s with a distinctive, receding hairline, similar to that shown in the Tintoretto portrait. Another portrait of Baglioni much later in life shows him with a forked beard, similar to that shown in the Tintoretto portrait, but now gray with age.

However, as fascinating as this speculation is, there is a more fundamental problem with this identification. Although Baglioni was a military man, he does not appear to have been a member of the Venetian Marines, let alone a commander of them. So unless new research shows up indicating that he was made a Marine Corps commander, we are left at a dead end with this line of inquiry, as far as identification of the subject is concerned.

Art appreciation involves not just looking at images of famous kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, but rather about staring into the eyes of people from long ago who became successful or well-regarded enough in their profession to have their picture painted. Before the dawn of photography, painting, sculpture, and engraving was how these people were commemorated for their contemporaries and for future generations. Even with all of our knowledge, resources, and technology, there are many great, portraits of unidentified people from the past like bankers and bakers, soldiers and scholars, and unknown Venetian Marines, whom we may never be able to conclusively identify. But the detective work that goes into trying to identify them is endlessly fascinating.

Artists In Love: Painting The Muse

The artistic muse is a figure of great importance in art history. For centuries, men have been inspired by the women they are in love with, to create beautiful works of art which try to capture the beauty of these women for posterity. Today I’d like us to briefly consider an English 19th century example of how beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, at times, and then jump back to perhaps the quintessential artistic muse of the Italian Renaissance.

Jane Morris is a muse well-known to those who have any familiarity with Pre-Raphaelite art. From portraying her as the figure of Beatrice from Dante’s poetry, to dressing her as a goddess or nymph, she inspired the painter Dante Gabrielle Rossetti for years. She had quite a lengthy affair with him as well, even though she was married to another Pre-Raphaelite luminary, William Morris. The question one has to ask oneself, though, is why.

From nearly two dozen paintings of her by Rossetti, Morris stares out, bug-eyed and seemingly bad-tempered. Why Rossetti was so besotted with her is something which I have never understood. To my eye, she looks like a rather oafish young man in drag, who has just been awakened from a stupor to discover that he is drooling on himself. Described in articles like this one as a “beauty”, Morris is proof that for many people, beauty must truly be in the eyes of the beholder.

Whatever beauty Jane Morris may have (inexplicably) been to the English Pre-Raphaelites in the 19th century, for Raphael himself during the High Renaissance in Rome, his mistress Margarita Luti, more commonly known as “La Fornarina” – “the baker’s daughter”, was the muse of muses. I wanted to write briefly about a beautiful portrait of the beautiful La Fornarina known as the “Donna Velata” or “Veiled Lady”, and to look at it in conjunction with his portrait of Count Baldessare Castiglione, painted roughly around the same time, between 1514 and 1515. (Regular readers know that Castiglione’s portrait forms the design basis for this site, as you will discover by scrolling up and clicking “Patron”.)

Before beginning however, a note of caution. The problem with La Fornarina has always been identifying her, since there is a portrait by Raphael called “La Fornarina” which looks nothing like the lady in question. I have always doubted that Raphael painted it, or that if he started it someone else, such as his pupil Giulio Romano, finished it and changed it significantly. La Fornarina is the model for the Virgin Mary in several of Raphael’s most famous paintings, including his “Sistine Madonna” and “Madonna of the Chair”, and the half-naked woman in the portrait named for her, in fact looks nothing like her.  

That caveat out of the way, let’s look at the “Veiled Lady” portrait. The first thing to notice in this picture, after you have absorbed the (actual) beauty of the woman in it, is that here we have almost a tonal painting. There are only shades of browns, whites, and golds, with a tiny bit of red for La Fornarina’s lips and cheeks, and in the ruby clip holding the pearl drop to her hair. Even the agate necklace around La Fornarina’s neck shows earth-toned gems set in simple gold.

Compare this very simple color scheme, almost a lack of color, if you will, to the portrait of Castiglione. Here, too, Raphael is also highly restrained in the color palette he uses. Castiglione’s painting is made up of browns, grays, blacks, and whites, with the only outstanding color being the writer’s piercing blue eyes. Even the gold-set jewel in his cap is shown muddled and in shadow.

Another similarity between the two portraits lies in the use of fabric. La Fornarina’s lavish white dress envelops her like a merengue, but it is lacking in color other than geometric borders in gold thread; she also wears a simple, natural linen veil over her head. In his portrait, Castiglione is shown wearing a basic black suit with a plush but equally simple, gray velvet cloak wrapped around him, and a jaunty black hat pushed back on his head, somewhat like a turban. While both of the outfits shown in these portraits were costly, their cost is shown through their quality, rather than by their being flashy.

We tend to think of the Renaissance as being a bold, colorful business, with people wearing extraordinarily loud colors and patterns. In this instance however, when Raphael chose to paint portraits of the woman he loved and of one of his closest friends and mentors, he did so without a great deal of fussiness, color, or flashiness. The brushwork is swift and natural, with the shyness of La Fornarina being expressed as beautifully in her somewhat timid glance, as Castiglione’s polite, noble self-confidence is in his own. There are no props necessary when you are an artist this good at capturing human expression. Indeed, one can look at this art and easily leap forward over a century and a few hundred miles to see how Velazquez did exactly the same thing in Madrid in the 17th century as Raphael was doing in Rome in the 16th.

Jane Morris and La Fornarina are not the only muses in art history, of course. From Simonetta Vespucci to Lady Hamilton to Gala Dali, many women became artistic inspirations for the men who admired them and represented them in art. However I think that what is interesting in the representations of these women are not when they appear as models for goddesses or saints, but rather in the art created for private consumption by the artist himself, for his own delectation. There we get a better sense, perhaps, of how the artist really saw his muse, when the two of them were alone. In the case of Raphael, one can well understand why he fell in love with La Fornarina.

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"Donna Velata" by Raphael (c. 1514-15)