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The Frick Acquires Its First Renaissance Portrait of a Woman

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From a gilded frame, a red-haired woman eyes the viewer warily. Her gaze is steely, direct and somewhat confrontational.

The painting, “Portrait of a Woman” (circa 1575) by Italian Renaissance master Giovanni Battista Moroni, was a centrepiece of a 2019 exhibition of his work at the Frick Collection, “Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture.” And now, it will become the first painted portrait of a woman from the Italian Renaissance to join its permanent collection, the New York museum announced on Friday.

“We have two Titians, we have a Tintoretto, we have a Bronzino — and they’re all of men,” Aimee Ng, a curator who co-organised the 2019 exhibition, said of the paintings currently in the collection. “So it’s a very big deal.”

It will go on display on Thursday at the Frick Madison, the museum’s temporary home on Madison Avenue while its Gilded Age mansion on Fifth Avenue undergoes renovations.

The painting, an anomaly among Renaissance portraits of women, which tended to promote a more modest and restrained image, is the most significant Renaissance painting acquired in more than a half-century by the Frick, which is known for its Old Master paintings and European fine and decorative arts, Ng said. It is a gift to the museum from the trust of a longtime board member, Assadour Tavitian, who died in 2020.

Neither the identity of the woman nor the purpose of the portrait is known, Ng said, and it does not seem to clearly fit into any of the reasons for which portraits were often made of women: betrothals, engagements or a couple’s move to a new, grander house.

“The demureness of what was much more of a quote-unquote feminine expectation is sort of out the window here,” she said. “Whoever is looking at her is definitely getting judged back.”

Moroni, who spent most of his life working in northern Italy, where he was born between 1520 and 1524, was distinguished by his remarkably naturalistic portraits. In her review of the Frick’s 2019 exhibition, New York Times co-chief art critic Roberta Smith wrote that Moroni “scrutinised reality with a new directness,” creating work that evokes “the feeling that we are looking at real people as they existed — unidealised.”

Of the approximately 125 portraits by Moroni that are known to exist, about 15 are portraits of women alone, according to the museum. The woman depicted here was probably aristocratic, Ng said, judging by her pink dress brocaded in silver-gilt and silver-wound thread, white neck ruff and fine jewellery.

Ng said she hoped the portrait, which is the first piece by Moroni in the Frick’s permanent collection, would bring more attention to the artist, who has achieved much greater recognition in Europe than in America.

“There, he’s ended up in Henry James’ and George Eliot’s novels, and become part of the culture,” she said. “I’d love to think that, by having a Moroni painting of this quality and visual impact in the Frick Collection, we can bring more of this artist into an American awareness.” — NYT

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