At the Frick, Andrea del Sarto Nails Down Uncertainty

THE DAILY PIC: It's a portrait masterpiece–because we can't tell what it's about.


THE DAILY PIC  (#1437): This portrait by the Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto, from the National Gallery in London, is one of my favorite pictures in the world. Now it has come for a visit to New York, as a painted bonus in the Frick Collection’s lovely survey of Andrea’s drawings.

The portrait was made in about 1517, and one of its puzzles is whether the gorgeous young sitter is holding a book or a block of stone, which would mark him out as either a writer or a sculptor.

But what if the confusion is perfectly deliberate, and we are not supposed to be able to decide? One of the (slightly dull) polemics in Renaissance art circled around whether artists could ever have the same license, and therefore the same genius, as authors do. Did Horace’s famous dictum that poetry merited the same kinds of flexible readings as painting, framed in Latin as “ut pictura poesis”, apply the other way around as well for Renaissance art? And could Andrea’s painting be meant to assert this very idea, by making an object that was both book and block?

I think the deepest structure of the painting has this same duality and ambivalence: Instead of facing us as in any normal portrait, and in Andrea’s first sketch for this one, our sitter gives us his back while also turning to let us confront him. His shadowed eyes, a trademark of Andrea’s,  continue the equivocation.

Our author/sculptor has the poetic license to be both present and absent.

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