Portrait of a Lady
oil on canvas transferred from panel
17 5/8 in. x 13 5/8 in. (44.77 cm x 34.61 cm)
Lorenzo di Ottavio Costa
This bust-length portrait depicts a young woman with rosy cheeks and reddish brown hair against a dark background. She turns her head turned slightly toward the viewer as she gazes unsmiling into the distance. Very well dressed, she wears a red garment under a green over-piece with yellow stripes on the sleeves and bows, or points, that attach the sleeves at the shoulder, leaving her white shift visible. Her hair is intricately styled in straight strands and small curls, and she wears a headband called a “lenza” with a jeweled pin. Opulent jewelry completes her costume, including a beaded necklace and a pendant with pearl drop and precious stones. The figure of the young woman is strongly outlined, uniformly lit, and constructed of defined blocks of color. These characteristics create an almost geometric simplicity of form and, against the minimal setting, a pronounced silhouette.
Context and Analysis
This portrait is the work of Italian Renaissance artist Lorenzo di Ottavio Costa, and likely depicts a lady of high social standing, although the sitter has not been identified. In Italy in the 1400s, elite patrons often commissioned such individualized representations of themselves and their family members. The elegant dress of the sitter is a Spanish style that became popular beginning in the late 1400s among Italian courts. Costa established himself as an artist in Bologna in the 1480s, where he worked for the ruling Bentivoglio family. In 1499 he moved to Ferrara and after 1506 to Mantua, where he was court painter to the prominent Gonzaga family.
Costa most likely created this painting while working for the Gonzagas. It bears a strong similarity to a portrait now in Hampton Court, London. The sitter in the London picture is also unknown. She is likely a member of the Gonzaga or Bentivoglio family, and may be the same young woman depicted in the Currier picture. The Currier’s picture may represent Eleonora Gonzaga (1493–1550), whose mother was the formidable art patron Isabella d’Este (1474–1539). Surviving accounts indicate that Costa also painted a portrait of Isabella. In the Currier portrait, the smooth skin and even features present an idealized vision of the sitter that emphasizes her beauty. Such portraits could serve several functions. They could be stand-ins for those depicted, evoking the absent person represented. They could also provide an opportunity for an artist to ignore flaws and instead seek out perfection in nature. Many Renaissance artists and patrons embraced the classical ideas of the Roman author Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE), who promoted the notion that outward appearance and inner character are closely connected. In this context, the young women’s beauty is indicative not only of her physical appearance, but also of her virtue.
This portrait can be compared to the Currier’s Portrait of Grace Elvina, Marchioness Curzon of Kedleston
of 1925 by John Singer Sargent (Currier, 1936.5
). Like Costa’s work, Sargent’s portrait depicts a well-to-do woman who sought to present herself to her social circle in a manner that would convey wealth and beauty. Sargent used many of the same motifs as Costa, representing the sitter in a sumptuous gown and jewelry set against a dark background. Like Isabella d’Este, Lady Curzon was reportedly highly critical of artists’ portrayals of her. Her husband, however, praised Sargent’s work as “ideal,” the same quality sought by Renaissance patrons and artists.
Written by Elizabeth A. Nogrady
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1925 Staedel Institute of Fine Arts, Frankfurt, Germany, "Masterpieces of Old Masters from Private Collections." Summer.
1972 Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, "Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts from the Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire." May 14 - June 20.
1979 Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, "Small Gallery on a Large Scale." June 16 - July 29.
1984 Center for the Fine Arts, Miami, FL, "In Quest of Excellence." Jan. 14 - Apr. 22.
1986 Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME, "Masterpieces from the Currier Gallery of Art." Sept. 11 - Nov. 2.
1994 Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria, "Isabella D'Este: Princess and Patron of the Renaissance." Feb. 15 - May 29.
2006-2007 Palazzo Te, Mantua, Italy, "Andrea Mantegna 1506-2006." Sept. 13, 2006 - Jan. 14, 2007.
2007 Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, Extended Loan of European and American Paintings. Feb. - Nov.
2013 Palazzo del Monte di Pietá, Padova, Italy, "Pietro Bembo e l'invenzione del Rinascimento." Feb. 2 - May 19.
Herman von Mumm, 1873
Baroness Mumm von Schwarzenstein
F. Kleinberger Galleries, New York, NY, 1927
Collection of Jules S. Bache, 1927-1945
Kende Sale, lot 17, April 23, 1945
Nicholas M. Acquavella Galleries, New York, NY, 1945-47
Purchased by Currier Gallery of Art, 1947