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The recent acquisition of Portrait of a Man with a Felt Hat by Lorenzo Lotto makes a splendid addition to the collection. Lotto is today recognized as one of the great masters of the Italian Cinquecento, whose training was Venetian but much of whose work was conducted in the Veneto, in and around Bergamo, and in the Marches. His early work bears the stamp of Bellini and Giorgione and, to a lesser degree, he was influenced by Raphael, whom he would have met during a brief trip to Rome, and by Leonardo. Primarily a painter of religious pictures, Lotto had a sensitive, even introspective nature. He was closely allied with the Dominican Order, painting altarpieces for a number of its institutions in northern Italy, and he died a lay brother of that order in Loreto. He was also a portrait painter of exceptional gifts who had patrons in Venice, Bergamo, and the Marches.
Hailed by critics, this rediscovered portrait was included in the 1997–98 Lotto retrospective that took place in Washington, Bergamo, and Paris. Unusual for the fact that it was painted on paper, later mounted on board and, more recently, canvas, it possibly connects with Lotto’s accounts for 4 March 1541, when a group of eight heads painted in oil on paper was recorded as having been purchased by Ottavio da Macerata. Lotto was obliged to spend several months in Macerata the previous year awaiting payment for the altarpiece he had executed in 1539 for the Dominican church in nearby Cingoli. It is logical to assume that the artist may have used this time to paint portraits of local people in the absence of other commissions and, for lack of a proper studio, that he executed these on paper, taking them back to Venice for completion.
Lotto’s sympathy for his subject is reflected in the straightforward, unassuming characterization. The sitter looks directly back at the artist and indeed the viewer with an open, intelligent expression. His head and shoulders fill the canvas in the manner of Raphael’s famous portrait of Castiglione, which was then in Mantua. Though a great colourist, Lotto here plays with similarly monochromatic tonalities. Despite the restriction of colour, the picture is not dark, but exhibits subtle variations in the warm tones of the costume, as well as in the flesh and hair. The artist provides no clue to the identity of his sitter, but the garments, while simple, are neat, sober, and of a certain quality. Over the slight indication of a white linen shirt, brilliantly highlighted, the sitter wears a black jacket and a thick grey wool tunic topped by a suede vest trimmed with black velvet. In his left hand he holds a felt hat, which his slightly tousled hair suggests he has just removed, lending the portrait a sense of immediacy. The picture’s small format is typical of portraits of the first half of the Cinquecento.
In forming the collections, curators endeavour to acquire works
of the highest quality. They have the choice of seeking artists
as yet not represented or of building on existing strengths as is
the case here. Within the context of the National Gallery’s
collection, this portrait obviously complements Lotto’s earlier,
brightly coloured Virgin
and Child with Saints Sebastian and Roch (c. 1521/24).
It also reinforces an already strong collection of 16th-century
portraiture of both the Italian and German schools, notably adding
one in which the sensitive, compelling psychological analysis of
the sitter contributes an element not otherwise represented.