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Andrea Del Sarto

Portrait of a Man (possible self-portrait?), ca.1518
click here for zoomable version

One of my favourite Renaissance painters, Andrea Del Sarto, who was called by Vasari as the artist "senza errori"—without errors—represents a Classicism with a poetic sensibility that borrows from Raphael and Da Vinci but evolved into his own brand of genius. Michelangelo was a good friend and one of his biggest fans, ultimately recommending him as a teacher to Vasari himself. Del Sarto has a way of synthesizing beauty and perfection with vivid color and a full-range of values that may have had an influence on Baroque painters much later on. Although another underrated artist today, his work really does have few faults. In fact, he would have made a formidable sculptor, judging by his confident anatomy and figures, with real facial and hand expressions that are hypnotic.

The above portrait shows a young man of uncertain identity, yet somehow the prevailing art historians believe it is not a self-portrait anymore. I tend to disagree, although it doesn't really look similar to his actual self-portrait painted roughly ten years later. What does matter is that this is one of the great portraits of all time that never gets recognition. The pureness of presence here is truly mesmerizing, especially in the way he looks furtively over his shoulder toward us, a stroke of genius that is rarely if ever seen in portraiture from that era or afterwards. Del Sarto does something extraordinary here...he creates a portrait that raises more questions than it answers. Imagine that. Where today contemporary portrait artists gush over Sargeant and Zorn it is here that they should really be looking to understand mood and character. Del Sarto's blues and the interesting hat really make us look at this portrait carefully, both for its simplicity and complexity.

Andrea del Sarto - Disputation on the Trinity - WGA0397
Disputation on the Trinity, 1517

This composition is purely about balance and order. Yet look carefully and the body language of each saint is distinctly individual, as is the color harmonies. Sebastian kneels to the left draped in vivid blue holding an arrow while Mary Magdalene is graceful and serene on the right with a jar of some sort. The saints debate with biblical reference while the trinity is depicted above them. A highly symbolic painting that has heightened realism, Del Sarto challenges our minds as well as our senses.

Assumption of the Virgin, ca. 1526-29

Del Sarto's use of color is breathtaking here. It is in fact complementary colours being pushed into their neighboring colors. The figures below make excellent use of foreshortening and real facial expressions, while the baby angels above also exemplify very clever foreshortening and Mannerist anatomy. The drapery is another bravura of Del Sarto, who makes it appear effortless. The darkness between the heavens and the figures below also suggests friction among Christianity itself.

Andrea del Sarto - Study for the Baptism of the People - WGA00366
Study for the Baptism of the People

Andrea del Sarto - Il sacrificio di Isacco
Sacrifice of Isaac, ca. 1527

The balance of sculptural Classicism with Mannerist twisting is reminiscent of Pontormo here in the young boy. Everyone is familiar with this biblical story and Isaac is usually depicted standing above his son who is lying down on an alter, whereas here he stands awkwardly with his hands tied behind his back. Isaac wears warm grey underneath vivid red, yet on his left leg we see a light green...this unique color combination repels and attracts our eye toward him to suggest the conflicting nature of his actions. Del Sarto is not just a painter of pretty faces; he is a thinking-mans' painter.


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