"The Drawings of Bronzino"

For the Met's survey of a Mannerist master, drawings take center stage.

  • Compositional Study for a Portrait of a Seated Man

  • Head of a Smiling Woman

  • Standing Nude

  • Head of a Curly-Haired Child Looking Up to the Right

Compositional Study for a Portrait of a Seated Man

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

Recently, I passed the window of Pearl River Mart on Broadway and noticed a vinyl bag bearing a picture of Michelle Obama swinging through the air with the inscription OUR LADY OF FABULOUS. The breezy, casual tone reminded me of just how differently images of the powerful are disseminated today compared with during the period covered in “The Drawings of Bronzino” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—though fabulous is also the perfect descriptor for this show.

In mid-16th-century Florence, Mannerist painter Agnolo di Cosimo (1503--1572), better known as Bronzino, was at the height of his activity. As the wall texts make clear, the artist never thought of the pieces here as objects to be displayed; they merely served as sketches for his paintings. But they are revelatory: Besides being sumptuous in themselves, they offer critical insight into the rigid system of apprenticeship and patronage that governed the production of art at the time, while also demonstrating the powerful, personal style that Bronzino was able to sustain within it.

The son of a butcher, Bronzino came at a very young age under the tutelage of Jacopo Pontormo, an eccentric Florentine artist who would introduce the younger artist to his eventual benefactors, the Medici family, and also act as the former’s closest artistic friend and advisor for much of his lifetime. Bronzino became court artist while Cosimo I de’ Medici was Duke of Florence; the Duke’s first wife, Eleanor of Toledo, was largely responsible for supporting Bronzino, and her death in 1562 left him in declining favor.

Many of Bronzino’s early works are of questionable attribution, a not-uncommon situation in the workshops where the artist honed his skills; however, in later works, Bronzino developed a distinctive approach that focused on the grandeur of the body. While this isn’t to say Bronzino’s art was devoid of piety—the Church was, after all, the ultimate arbiter of culture at the time—many of his most magnificent drawings and paintings are arresting secular portraits that celebrate the psychology of the sitter, coupled with a uniquely finished look that highlights physical details. Head of a Curly-Haired Child Looking up to the Right is a good example of Bronzino’s interest in sensual attributes, carefully delineating each curl. Whereas Pontormo used chiaroscuro to create an air of idealized refinement that did not spark strong associations with three-dimensionality, the works attributed to Bronzino are defined by their realism, sculptural qualities and evocation of presence. Seated Nude Youth Playing Pan Pipes is one of the most striking works in this respect, with its awkward twisting of the subject’s pose, and the ungainliness emphasized by his jutting ribs. In the more religiously themed study for a tapestry, titled Joseph with Jacob and His Brothers, Joseph embodies both stately majesty and a directness of expression rare for the time.

The most compelling aspects of Bronzino’s art, however, are not to be found in the regal nature of important personages who sat for him, but rather in the scrappiness of his more anonymous models. It is the realism in these works that is most striking, serving as a reminder of the humanity evinced not only by the subjects, but by the artist who immortalized them so long ago.

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