National Gallery of Art to exhibit works of Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo


Piero di Cosimo’s "The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot" depicts the Virgin Mary as she converses with Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. (National Gallery of Art, Washington/National Gallery of Art, Washington)

The National Gallery of Art will present a rare exhibition devoted to the Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo beginning Feb. 1.

According to the gallery, it will be the first major retrospective ever devoted to the Florentine master and the first time a substantial number of his paintings have been seen together in the United States since 1938, when seven works attributed to him were shown in a New York City gallery. The exhibition, which will be seen in a revised form at the Uffizi Gallery Museum in Florence later in 2015, will include about 40 works believed to be by Piero. (Attribution of his work has long been a complicated subject.)

Born in 1462 — younger than Leonardo da Vinci and older than Raphael — Piero is one of the most intriguing artists of his age. Giorgio Vasari, the biographer of the great Renaissance artists, noted “the strangeness of Piero’s brain,” which could refer both to the curious details that creep into his pictures or his reputation for personal prickliness, odd domestic habits, curious phobias and an oratorical ability that bordered on the ridiculous. “He was varied and original in his discourse, and sometimes said such beautiful things, that he made his hearers burst with laughter,” Giorgio Vasari wrote. Among the things that set him apart from his contemporaries was an apparent interest and absorption in the meticulous, lively and detailed northern European painting style, which makes Piero’s work teem with small, delicate, unresolved dramas, unlike the lean, muscular, limpid style of Raphael, whose work dominated the generation after Piero.

“This first-ever retrospective on Piero allows us finally to bring together examples from all the genres in which he painted and from all time periods to better understand the chronology of his life and the progression of his career,” said Gretchen Hirschauer, the gallery’s associate curator for Italian and Spanish paintings, in an e-mail. As for attribution, that remains a continually evolving story: “None of his works are signed and dated, and there are not many documents that establish the facts of his life. For example, the date of his birth, 1462, was established in 2000,” Hirschauer said.

The National Gallery has three Pieros in its collection, including “The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot,” in which the Virgin Mary visits with Elizabeth, mother of St. John the Baptist, while two saints sit on either side of the large wooden panel, deeply absorbed in reading and writing. The contrast between the four figures creates a small sense of friction or dissonance that is an essential pleasure of Piero’s work: The men seem lost to the significance of what is happening behind them, engaged only with the transmission of words, while the women clasp hands and enact a more substantial, more human encounter.

The other two Pieros owned by the gallery, “The Nativity with the Infant Saint John” and a curious “Allegory” that depicts a woman cavorting with a white horse, will also be on display. They will be seen alongside work borrowed from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Harvard Art Museums, the Museo degli Innocenti and the Uffizi (both in Florence), and other public and private collections. Some beloved Piero works, such as the “Death of Procris” (at the National Gallery in London), are too fragile to travel and won’t be included.

The exhibition will be seen in the West Building of the National Gallery through May 3.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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