Lorenzo Lotto Portraits at the National Gallery

Portrait of a Dominican Friar, 1526

150 years ago, few people would have heard of Lorenzo Lotto (c1480-1556/7) or considered him a significant Renaissance artist. Starting his career in Venice he was overshadowed by the substantial presence of Titian. He worked for much of his career outside of the main art centres in Renaissance Italy, failed to ensure his own financial security and eventually abandoned his career as an artist to enter a monastery where he died in 1556/7. Although he left a significant body of work, much of it became attributed to other artists and it was not until he was identified as a significant figure by art historian Bernard Berendsen at the end of the C19 that his reputation was restored.

He spent much of his life in Le Marche, between Ancona and Ascoli Piceno and it was whilst on holiday there that I first became aware of him. The church of San Domenico in the town of Cingoli holds a most unusual Madonna of the Rosary which is pictured here.

This small and very beautiful exhibition at the National Gallery focuses on his work as a portraitist and is particularly interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, by working outside of Venice, Florence or Rome he inevitably was commissioned less by the princes, aristocrats and religious power-players who were concentrated in those cities and more by the merchants and local clergy in the regional centres where he lived. At the same time he developed an approach to portraiture which was less formal and stylised than what had gone before and which sought to give insight to the character of the sitter.

The portrait of a Dominican Friar illustrated above is a nice example of this style. We see the friar sat at his desk, momentarily distracted from his work on the accounts of the monastery where he was perhaps treasurer. A green curtain shuts us off from the room where he is working an ensures that the central figure receives our undivided attention. Beside the account books is a pile of money, and various keys, reinforcing the financial control he exercises. This is a picture of a serious man of business, who happens to work in a religious establishment. Although there is some warmth in the eyes, a sense perhaps of some humour behind the stern demeanour, the picture leaves us in no doubt that this is a sober-minded, diligent and hard working man. It is in many ways a very contemporary portrait.

The Virgin in Glory between Saints Anthony Abbot and Louis of Toulouse, 1506

Lotto also painted a significant number of altarpieces and other religious paintings, as any painter seeking to earn a living at that time would obviously have done. And indeed the evidence is that Lotto was a devout believer. But his skills as a portraitist also imbued much of his religious work. The Virgin in Glory illustrated above shows a figure of the Virgin Mary much older than she would have normally been presented. It seems certain that this is in fact a portrait of Caterina Cornaro (1454-1510), Queen of Cyprus, who had been ejected from Cyprus by Venice and offered instead the city of Asolo in the Veneto. She commissioned the picture for the church in Asolo where it still hangs. To reinforce the connection the tree beneath her feet is a cypress tree. The link with Cornaro is also reinforced by the selection of two rather obscure saints both of which have devotional and dynamic links.

As so often, the small exhibitions allow you to pay more attention to the individual works. This is a lovely show and well worth a visit.