One sidebar to the Huntington’s “Face to Face: Flanders, Florence, and Renaissance Painting” is the upgrade of two Italian portraits acquired long ago by Arabella Huntington. The unidentified couple—the man vaguely resembles Keanu Reeves—is now credited to Domenico Ghirlandaio, teacher of Michelangelo and creator of such iconic Renaissance portraits as the Louvre’s Old Man With a Young Boy. That brings the panels to the forefront of the Huntington’s small group of Italian paintings.
The Huntington portraits have always been a puzzle. They are one of three known versions. All show the same woman, but the men are different. The portrait-pair most discussed in the literature has been that in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie (below). Its execution is inferior to the Huntington paintings, though this fact was not widely acknowledged until recently.
The third pair, worn and barely of thrift-shop quality, is in the Musée Fabre of Montpellier, France (below). Whoever painted it skipped the interesting still life background of the Huntington and Berlin women. That includes a feature you might have missed, a needle casting a long shadow over the gray wall. The needle represented wifely duties.
Paired portraits like this commemorated marriages. Did the woman have three husbands (in such a short time that she hadn’t aged a day herself)? Probably not. Renaissance Italy was a man’s man’s man’s man’s world. It’s likely that the men commissioned the paintings. The question becomes, why would three men want themselves painted next to the same woman?
The Huntington isn’t sure. Mostly likely an upscale couple had Ghirlandaio do their wedding portraits. The results were recognized as exceptional. One way or another, at least two young men commissioned copies of both paintings, with their own features replacing the original man’s.
In Florentine painting young women were often idealized. The traditional profile view was considered most flattering, even as the Flemish three-quarter view became fashionable for its daring realism. Botticelli and studio produced “ideal portraits” of (literally) pre-Raphaelite women in profile. Maybe some of the Ghirlandaio studio’s downmarket male customers didn’t care whether the woman was a significant other. The Berlin male portrait hints at that. A landscape detail to the right of the sitter’s shoulder shows a distant man greeting a woman in red. It doesn’t support the case that the right panel’s woman is his one and only.
Domenico Ghirlandaio came from an artist family and had a substantial studio. At left is his presumed self-portrait from the large Adoration of the Magi of 1488 (which also looks a little like Keanu Reeves). After his death Sebastiano Mainardi married Domenico’s half-sister and produced works in his style.
Berlin long credited its portraits to Mainardi. The Huntington followed that lead with its own paintings.
More recently the Berlin museum decided that its pair is by Domenico’s less talented brother Davide Ghirlandaio. The Berlin paintings were shown in the Metropolitan Museum’s 2011 exhibition of Renaissance portraits. Its catalog noted that the Huntington panels were “fine enough to warrant an attribution to Domenico Ghirlandaio himself.” This view has gained traction.
Vasari remarked that Ghirlandaio was the first (Italian) painter to decisively reject gilding. When he painted a gold object, such as the brooch in the Huntington female, he used yellow and brown paint, not gold leaf. Not until 1912 did Braque reintroduce skeuomorphic collage into Western painting.