In 1989, a painting called Portrait of a Halberdier sold at auction for over $35 million dollars. This was not a painting by an Impressionist or 20th century master, but a rare occasion when a top-quality painting by an outstanding Old Master painter was sold. The portrait was by a master of that last phase of Renaissance painting, Mannerism — characterized by exaggerated features and gestures — Jacopo Pontormo (1494–1557).
Pontormo’s name should rank as highly as that of Leonardo da Vinci or Sandro Botticelli (both of whom had works which sold for enormous amounts of money in recent years). However, he remains elusive, partly due to the fact that much of his work has not survived. His surviving paintings constitute important landmarks in the history of art. His drawings, though, offer insights into the artists creative process. They are constantly used as examples for art students to copy and show that he really does have a place on the list of the greatest draftsmen who ever lived.
Much early biographic information about the artist proved to be questionable, at best. Giorgio Vasari, self-appointed art historian of the Italian Renaissance, developed the narrative of Italian art history around a series of biographies which trace the development of art in bronze, silver, and golden ages (culminating with the works of Michelangelo). Vasari’s biography of Pontormo showed him to be a rather neurotic artist and has been superseded by the work of later historians. It should be noted that Vasari (1511–1574) and Pontormo were contemporaries and artistic rivalry probably played a role in Vasari’s rather unsympathetic biography of Pontormo. Moreover, if one compares the quality of work each artist produced, one can see that Pontormo was the superior artist. Giorgio Vasari was a great story teller and practically invented the field of art history. He was also essentially a workaholic propagandist for the Medici family and was therefore employed to decorate many buildings in the city of Florence. Vasari had little originality in terms of his artwork and was a second-rate figure in the shadow of Michelangelo (whom Vasari idolized). Pontormo, by contrast, was a true original and the closest thing to an avant-garde artist in the middle of the sixteenth century as the apex of Renaissance realism gave way to the Mannerist style which was to bridge it with the later Baroque style developed by people like Caravaggio.
Drawings like the seated man above are perfect for beginning art students to learn to improve their draftsmanship by copying works of the great masters of the past. This drawing, rather gestural, also shows the creative process at work as the artist changed his mind when it came to the arm and shoulder. The emphasis here is not on making everything perfect and final. Rather, it is to covey a feeling, a movement. In that sense, it is gestural. It also served to help the artist articulate his ideas on paper — he could work out his designs for himself and his studio. More than likely, though, Renaissance artists would be shocked and appalled that modern audience are looking at these drawings as finished works of art in themselves. Michelangelo was known to have destroyed a large quantity of his own drawings to prevent other artists to essentially steal his techniques by looking into the details of his creative process. For Pontormo, a number of his drawings do survive and reveal the inner workings of a Renaissance master’s decision when planning for a painting.
I have found great inspiration in the work and legacy of Pontormo in my own studies as a beginning artist. His drawings and distinct manner of drawing lend themselves greatly to the art student of any age. His contemporary Bronzino drew a picture of him (one which was, and sometimes still is, attributed to Pontormo as a self-portrait).