“Botticelli was a remarkable portraitist, but lamentably only about eight or so portraits by him survive,” notes Ronald Lightbown in his assessment of the artist's career (see Sandro Botticelli: Life and Work, 1989, p. 54). The present composition is a beautiful example of Botticelli’s tender portraits of the early 1480s, and is stylistically datable to the period of his Birth of Venus, Uffizi, Florence (see Fig. 1).
Botticelli, with the possible exception of Michelangelo, is the most romanticized artist of the Italian Renaissance. The progenitor of some of the most enduring and endearing images of the age-- the Primavera and the Birth of Venus-- Botticelli and his works have always been inextricably tied to the Florence of Lorenzo the Magnificent. To the modern mind he is one of the most human artists of a humane age. Already by the time of his death, his fame had begun to wane, and his style had begun to seem old-fashioned and prosaic compared with the grand manners of Michelangelo and Raphael. It was not until the late 19th Century, with its reawakened interest in late quattrocento Florentine history and art, that Botticelli resumed his position as one of the most admired and beloved artists of the Renaissance. As always, Walter Pater put it elegantly, “He is before all things a poetical painter, blending the charm of story and sentiment, the medium of the art of poetry, with the charm of line and colour, the medium of abstract painting.”
The present Portrait of a Woman is an excellent example of Botticelli’s portrait style. The sitter is shown in profile, silhouetted against a blue sky. The architectural element at the left edge of the painting remains undescribed by the artist, and is likely to suggest that the sitter is sitting by a window or standing in a type of loggia. The as yet unknown sitter wears a dark gown, and her hair is styled in the elaborate manner then in fashion among upper-class Florentine women.
The graceful linearity of the transparent veil and stark contours of the sitter’s profile are as typical of Botticelli, and are painted in his careful and considered technique. The portrait was first published by Berenson in 1901 as by Amico di Sandro (literally “friend of Sandro”), the working name for an anonymous artist that Berenson devised for a group of Botticellian patinings (see Literature). It was not until Berenson re-examined the picture after cleaning that he published it in 1963 as an autograph work (see Berenson 1963 Literature). The removal of an old repaint confirmed its status as an authentic Botticelli.
Adolpho Venturi (see Literature) initially did not accept the attribution until, together with his son Lionel, he saw the work after it was cleaned and accepted the work as Botticelli in full and suggested a date of circa 1490 (see Konody Literature). Bode accepted the present work as an autograph work of circa 1485-90 and also compared it with the Altenburg portrait (for illus. see Lightbow Literature below, no. C31). Gamba initially dated the portrait to circa 1478 (see Gamba 1932 Literature). Salvini dates the portrait to circa 1481 (see Salvini Literature).
Raimond van Marle originally dated the present work to about 1486, contemporary with the Tornabouni frescoes executed for the villa of Giovanni Tornabuoni (1428 – 1497), near Florence (two of which are in the Musée de Louvre, Paris), and compared it to the Portrait of a Young Lady in the Altenburg Museum. In both works, the master portrays the sitter sharply outlined against a dark background. However, the present composition is closer to Botticelli’s earlier portraits, such as the Portrait of Guiliano de’Medici, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and the Portrait of Smeralda Donati, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in which the artist also places his sitter by a window, eliciting a similar illusionistic effect.
Not knowing the painting in the original, Lightbown, at the time of publication of his monograph, included the present painting in his section of “autograph” works by Botticelli, on the basis of photographs and the strength of the universal acceptance of other scholars (see Literature). Pons in her recent monograph accepts it as autograph, and dates it to circa 1481/2, just before the Primavera. This dating suggests that the present work was produced during the years which were unarguably the artist’s more fecund and artistically glorious.
A recent restoration and technical investigation of the Portrait of a Woman has provided new and interesting information about Botticelli’s working method in the present painting. Previous treatments of the panel had obscured parts of the artist’s original intention, and hidden pentimenti have become somewhat more visible. Modeling of the sleeve and other parts of the sitter’s dress were overpainted in a thick, opaque black pigment which has now been removed, and the original grey and dark grey tempera of the fabric have been revealed. In addition, fanciful additions of the early 20th Century, for example the falling drape of the veil at the back of the neck of the sitter, have been removed.
The figure itself seems to have been placed slightly to the left of where it is now, and this has become clear by changes in the outline of the sitter’s neck, which is faintly visible to the naked eye. Perhaps more interesting is the change to the sitter’s coiffure, which has also been shifted to right; Botticelli had painted in areas of sky blue, which he then was forced to cover over as he moved the outline to the right. Infrared reflectography has revealed the underdrawing, particularly strong and beautiful in the outline of the profile (see fig. 1), which is drawn, probably in ink and perhaps some wash to give form, with great assurance and precision. It is interesting to note that this profile seems to have remained where it was placed originally, suggesting that Botticelli sketched this vital part of the painting in first, presumably with his sitter in front of him, and that the contours of the bodice, sleeves, and hair where altered slightly as he worked through the composition. Reflectography in parts of the hair also reveal the artist’s original intention in the tightly coiled twists of the sitter’s fashionable coiffure.
We are grateful to Everett Fahy for confirming the attribution of the present painting to Botticelli, and dating it to the early 1480s.
Tempera on panel
Budapest, Szepmuveszeti Muzeum, Kiallitas Lord Rothemere Gyüjtemenyenck, 1938, cat. no. 2 (as by Botticelli);
Houston, Allied Arts Association, Masterpieces of Painting through Six Centuries, November 16 - 27, 1952, cat. no. 1;
New York, Wildenstein, The Painter as Historian, November 15 – December 31, 1962, no. 24;
Paris, Musée du Luxembourg, 1 October, 2003- 22 February, 2004; Florence, Palazzo Strozzi, 10 March- 11 July, 2004, Botticelli, cat. no. 10.
19 1/2 by 14 in.; 49.5 by 35.6 cm.
Catalogo dei quadri ed altri oggetti della Galleria Rinuccini per comodo dei signori che favoriscono visitaria, Florence 1845, p. 15;
Catalogo della galeria del fu Marc. Rinuccini, n.d. [circa 1851], p. 8, no. 132;
Florence, Palazzo Rinuccini, Alcuni quadri della Galleria Rinuccini, descretti e illustrati, May 1, 1852, lot 132;
B. Berenson, "Amico di Sandro," in The Study and Criticism of Italian Art, I, London 1908, p. 63 (as by "Amico di Sandro");
B. Berenson, The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance, New York 1909 (as by "Amico di Sandro");
T. Kröber, Die einzelne Porträtses Botticelli, PhD, Leipzig 1911, pp. 27-28, reproduced plate Vib;
A.Venturi, Botticelli, 1925, p. 118 (rejected attribution to Botticelli);
A. Venturi, Botticelli, 1927, p. 122 (rejected attribution to Botticelli);
L’Art Vivant, no. 65, September 1, 1927, reproduced on cover and p. 697;
R. van Marle, The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting, vol. XII, 1931, p. 74;
P. G. Konody, Works of Art in the Collection of the Viscount Rothermere, 1932, no. 10, reproduced plate 10;
C. Gamba, "Opere giovanile del Botticelli," in Bolletino d'arte, Ser. III, XXV, no. 11, May 1932, p. 504, reproduced p. 503, fig. 12;
Pantheon, XI, no. 12, December 1938, reproduced p. 393;
J. Mesnil, Botticelli, Paris, 1938, p. 222, reproduced plate CIX;
R. Salvini, Tutta la pittura del Botticelli, 1958, vol. I, p. 63, reproduced plate 107;
H.L.F., "The Painter as Historian," in Art News, LXI, no. 8, December 1962, pp.15-16;
F.C. Bentivegna, Abbigliamento e costume nella pittura italiana, 1962, p. 20, no. 162, reproduced p. 116;
B. Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Florentine School, London 1963, I, p. 36;
C. Bo and G. Mandel, L’Opera Completa del Botticelli, 1967, reproduced p. 95, no. 65;
R. Lightblown, Sandro Botticelli, 1978, vol. II, pp. 113-115, no. B101, reproduced p. 114;
N. Pons, Botticelli: catalogo completo, Milan 1989, reproduced p. 68, no. 52;
C. Caneva, Botticelli: catalogo completo dei dipinti, Florence 1990, p. 146, no. 12A;
C.C. Wilson, Italian Paintings XIV-XVI Centuries in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1996, p. 153, under no. 12, note 3;
J.E. Craven, "A New Historical View of the Independent Female Portraits in Fifteenth-Century Florentine Painting," (phD dissertation, University of Pittsburgh), 1997, pp. 159, note 15; discussed p. 162, 192-193; 285-286, cat. no. 27 (on the basis of a photograph it is listed as attributed to a follower of Botticelli);
T. Carratù, in Botticelli, exhibition catalogue, Milano, 2003, pp. 120-121, cat. no. 10.
Marchese Pierfrancesco Rinuccini (1788 - circa 1852), Palazzo Rinuccini, Florence as of 1845;
Thence by descent to his daughter, Lucrezia Rinuccini, later (1852) Principessa Trivulzio, Milan;
Thence by descent to Principe Luigi Alberico Trivulzio (1868-1938), Milan, as of 1908;
Harold Sidney Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere (1868-1840), London as of circa 1930;
By whose Estate sold, London, Christie’s, December 6, 1946, lot 61;
There purchased by Reverend R. Corbould, England;
With Wildenstein, New York circa 1962.