March 2013


Piero della Francesca in America
The Frick Collection, New York
February 12 - May 19, 2013

Peerless Piero

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Born in the small Tuscan town of Borgo San Sepolcro in the early fifteenth century, Piero della Francesca (c. 1415 - 1492) went on to become one of the greatest painters of his age, and indeed of any age. Though relatively few biographical facts are known about him, his extant works and what information we have regarding their history testify to his extraordinary gifts as a painter and to the unparalleled quality for which he was acknowledged as a "monarch" of painting in his own time. Sadly, only a few works by this master of the early Italian Renaissance are in American collections. Happily, Piero della Francesca in America at New York's Frick Collection brings all but one of them together for the first time. Comprising just seven paintings (a fresco of Hercules in Boston's Gardner Museum is not in the show), it includes one stunning panel on loan from abroad. There is nothing little about the import of this little exhibition, however.

A Rarely Lent Masterpiece

First and foremost are the paintings themselves, displayed in the elegant setting of the Frick's Oval Room, where they can be comfortably viewed close up or a few steps back. Three of them are absolute knockouts. Center stage is fittingly occupied by the Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels on loan from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. [click on details to enlarge]--Piero's only intact altarpiece in the United States. With downcast eyes, the Virgin beholds the Child reaching out for the rose she extends to him, as if in mutual acceptance of his future sacrifice, which it symbolizes. Seated on a pedestal adorned with carved rosettes, in a classically inspired but intimately scaled architectural space, the Virgin is attended by four angels. Most striking is the red-robed angel on the panel's right side, who mediates between the sacred scene and the real-world viewer. Engaging us directly with his forthright gaze, he gestures toward the Virgin and Child--seeming to say, Behold and remember this.

All the earmarks of Piero's incomparable style are evident in this painting: the serene classicism of his figures, the delicacy of his palette, and his complete mastery of perspective (he wrote a treatise on the subject), which he exploits for expressive ends. In this case, the compressed architectural setting conveys a sense of intimacy--yet the Virgin is larger than life, for if she were to rise from her seated position she would be considerably taller than the surrounding figures. (1)

The Sant'Agostino Altarpiece

All the works in this exhibition were created for Piero's home town, with which he maintained a deep lifelong connection. And all but the Clark Institute's Virgin and Child are from his most important work there--a monumental altarpiece for the Church of Sant'Agostino--a work cited as "much extolled" in Giorgio Vasari's historic Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550).

Just a few years after Vasari penned those words, however, Piero's great altarpiece was dismantled. Only eight known fragments remain, six of which are shown at the Frick. The others are a very beautiful figure of Saint Michael in the National Gallery, London, and a more sombre Saint Nicholas of Tolentino in the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan. As envisioned by the Frick's likely reconstruction of the altarpiece (see Interactive), those images--together with the marvelous Saint Augustine [more] on loan from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon and the Frick's own Saint John the Evangelist [more]--would have flanked a large central panel. According to a document discovered in 1990, that panel depicted a Madonna with the Christ Child in her arms.

Piero's image of Saint Augustine--the patron saint of the church and religious order for which the altarpiece was created--is a tour de force, which astonishes by the sheer virtuosity of its painting. For the ceremonial attire of this early Father of the Church, Piero did not merely simulate a rich velvet brocade with all the skill of the best Northern Renaissance artists (with whom he undoubtedly had some contact); he chose in addition to adorn the border of Augustine's cope with miniature scenes from the life of Christ. Thus garbed, the saint--firmly grasping his bishop's crozier (of transparent crystal)--seems the complete embodiment of the church. Depicted by Piero as a bearded middle-aged man with an expression of intense concentration befitting his scholarly pursuits, he is a figure of imposing dignity.

It is the Frick's own Saint John which I found most compelling, however. Represented in hoary-bearded old age, the Evangelist is intently pondering his gospel, which he holds with strong yet beautiful long-fingered hands. The volume's pages are slightly flurried--an inspired painterly touch that suggests active reading. Apart from that detail, the thick red folds of the saint's simple outer robe, and the jewel-studded hem of his undergarment and book binding, however, Piero's art is lavished mainly upon John's expressive face and hands. The most telling parts of any portrait, they suggest to me that this figure might well have been an actual portrait, perhaps modeled on a suntanned elderly denizen of San Sepolcro whose aspect had particularly impressed the painter. Who could forget a face and hands like these? The single word that perhaps best characterizes Piero's work comes to mind here. It is gravitas, and it is fully exemplified by this wonderful image. Transcending the religious content of the paintings, that quality pervades the art of Piero.

The great connoisseur of Italian Renaissance painting Bernard Berenson especially praised Piero's art for its "impersonality" and "absence of expressed emotion." True, the timeless impassivity admired by him (as by many others, myself included) is evident in much of Piero's work--it is clearly discernible in the face of the Virgin in the Clark Institute's panel, for example. But the face of Piero's Saint John is quite different. Highly individualized, it is also expressive (not emotive)--powerfully expressive of deep reflection.

Collectors Par Excellence

A particularly laudable aspect of the Frick exhibition is the light it sheds on the calibre of the collectors who brought Piero to America. In contrast with today's collectors--who "buy what the art consultant or the auction specialist at Christie's or the writer at Frieze magazine tells them is hot" (2)--their acquisition of Piero's work was no mean status grab based mainly on name recognition in the culture at large. In fact, when Isabella Stewart Gardner became the first American collector to acquire a painting by him in 1903 (the Hercules fresco cited above), he was little known, having been largely ignored for centuries until his rediscovery in the late nineteenth. But she, like Sterling and Francine Clark in the following decade, and Helen Clay Frick somewhat later, bought his work because they truly appreciated it on a personal level. The Clarks, for example, always relied on their own judgment in forming their collection, never engaging outside advisors. And Helen Clay Frick was particularly keen on the Frick Collection's acquisition of the Saint John panel in 1936 (for the then record price of $400,000), because Piero was one of her favorite artists, whose work she had come to know and love on visits to San Sepolcro and Arezzo. This exhibition is, in part, a tribute to these collectors' taste and discernment, of which the public is now the fortunate beneficiary.

On view through May 19, Piero della Francesca in America is being supplemented by a series of seminars and public lectures. Some of them are available online, along with an interactive virtual tour and a feature that enables zooming in on details of the Sant'Agostino altarpiece's eight extant panels. Even in the lesser figures and smaller scenes from the work's predella panels, the virtuosity and profundity of this matchless painter are evident. Kudos to the exhibition's young Guest Curator, Nathaniel Silver.


1. See also the remarks on this painting in Kamhi and Torres, "A Window onto the Glory of the Italian Renaissance" (review of From Filippo Lippi to Piero della Francesca at the Metropolitan Museum), Aristos, April 2005.

2. Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 235.

Further Reading

Walter Kaiser, "The Noble Dreams of Piero," New York Review of Books, March 21, 2013.

Michelle Marder Kamhi, "Piero della Francesca's Uffizi Diptych" (Aristos, November 2007), linking to The Uffizi Diptych by Piero della Francesca: Its Form, Iconography, and Purpose (M.A. thesis, Hunter College, C.U.N.Y., 1970).

Martha Frick Symington Sanger, Helen Clay Frick: Bittersweet Heiress (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007).