Andrea Del Sarto Study of the Head of a Young Woman (detail) about 1523 red chalk on paper
My husband and I were lucky enough to go see the Getty Center's new show Andrea Del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action. It is a beautiful show, full of wonders of the hand and spirit. His drawings are small, confidant yet delicate, and astonishingly full of feeling. What struck me most, walking through the show twice trying to absorb all the beauty, was his tenderness and respect for his subjects, something I usually associate most with Rembrandt. Yet his paintings were more DaVinci like, with soft sfumato edges and gentle chiaroscuro, but far more vibrantly colored. Unusually, there is an unfinished painting on display, a heavily worked, half-done, very large painting of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. The angel is a cherub, a symbol of innocence in a moment that takes away Isaac's innocence forever. Isaac's face is ambiguous, maybe even ambivalent, as he kneels below his father's outstretched hand. The image is agitated, violence barely averted. My husband remarked that Catholic painters had to be interpreters of the scriptures, theologians as well as painters.
While it was interesting to see Del Sarto's working drawings and how they were used, sometimes repeatedly, in his paintings, I enjoyed his portraits most of all. The drawings of a woman which the writer of the wall-texts speculated was likely his wife Lucrezia had such tenderness, respect, and thoughtfulness that they almost glowed. You had the sense looking at them that here was a woman respected and loved. The oil portrait of a young man with lavender-grey sleeves was similarly remarkable for the directness of his gaze, the beauty of his expression and the mutual regard the viewer gets to share with the painting, looking and being looked at, a glimpse forever shared. There was also an exquisite and moody drawing of a young boy with ruffled hair in the same room, a study for a painting of a youthful Saint John the baptist, also on display. Del Sarto's use of chalk is really wonderful, how he could vary between softly blended shadows, hatchwork, and all kinds of varied lines to describe the contours of the face, the tendrils of hair. His range of emotion is wonderful, too, from astonishment to wariness to introspection to warmth and liveliness. He often didn't draw pupils in the eyes of his subjects, which gave them a dreamy other-worldliness, a look of reflection.
Speaking now of a different kind of reflection, on the state of art today, this morning I read Ben Davis' 'Why are There Still so Few Successful Female Artists?' and Mira Schor's response 'Just a Short Message From Venus.' It made me think of the recent headlines about Meryl Streep sending a letter and a book about equality to each member of Congress encouraging them to revive the Equal Rights Amendment. It shocked me a year ago to read a book on feminism and realize that there is no language in our constitution ensuring the equality of women in this nation. This despite Abigail Adams' passionate letter in March of 1776 to her husband to "remember the ladies" as he helped write the constitution. She warned him "all men would be tyrants if they could." After the initial shock began to pass into wonder, I found myself thinking how could half of America not count enough to have a few words added on their behalf? But somehow women are still overlooked, living a half-invisible life. How sad that it is not in our history books that while the Equal Rights Amendment was first written in the 1920s and passed in 1972, progress was halted in 1982 because it was three states short of the minimum needed to add it to the constitution. And here we are in 2015, still missing those crucial few words that recognize a self evident fact that all humans are created equal, all men, all women, all children, no matter what gender, age, race, sexual orientation, or belief, everyone is equal before God and should be equal before the law. Perhaps we need to re-read Abigail Adams' letter, and again warn the world that if "particular care and attention are not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion."
Perhaps we also need to look at more humanist art, to learn to look at others with respect and tenderness, alive to the nuances of individuality that Andrea Del Sarto so beautifully recorded in his drawings and paintings. I sincerely believe that art teaches us how to look, and that to look at the world (and other people) with more attention leads to greater appreciation and care for what we regard.