August 06, 2015

A visit to the Norton Simon Museum.

There is, of course, a huge collection of paintings at the museum but over the years I have developed a group of “permanent tenants” I visit first, and always.  One of the paintings is the “Portrait of an Elderly Man” by Giovanni Battista Moroni.

For me, Giovanni Battista Moroni is one of the greatest of all portraitists.  He captured his sitters’ psychology with exceptional honesty and insight.

It is not only novelists or art historians who find the study of portraits so rewarding. Anyone who has seen the work of Giovanni Battista Moroni (and many visitors to the Norton Simon Musuem will have been entranced by that “Elderly Man”), will surely feel the same thing: that although the past may indeed be a foreign country with all the cultural strangeness and challenge that suggests, with the right guide and a little imagination it can offer up universal humanity alongside deeper, sometimes darker, individual psychology and character.

Moroni may not be as well known today as many other Renaissance artists. Indeed some art historians have been decidedly sniffy about his talent: Bernard Berenson dismissed him as “the only mere portrait painter that Italy has ever produced”, adding, “these people of his are too uninterestingly themselves”.

Yet over the centuries some of Moroni’s canvases have been attributed to Titian. And Titian himself, older and always much more famous, is said to have rated Moroni’s work, recommending him to Venetian patricians, because, as he put it, he painted men ‘from nature’.

But spend an hour in that “Elderly Man’s” company and you will surely understand why painting from nature, suggesting truth over vanity, realism over artifice and man’s humility in the face of God as the ultimate creator, this sitter will come down to you with a distinct personality both physical and psychological.