Friday 23 November 2018


Yesterday I went to see the exhibition of Lorenzo Lotto portraits at the National Gallery. I've long been a Lotto fan, so I was delighted that this major exhibition, co-created with the Prado, had come to London. Amazingly the National isn't making much of it, with all its publicity focused on Mantegna-Bellini and The Courtauld Impressionists (basically the same pictures that you can see down the road at Somerset House any time). Still more amazingly, the Lotto exhibition is free! It surely represents the best free exhibition in town.
  Lotto portraits have been assembled from all over Italy, from Berlin and Vienna, from as far afield as Washington and Ottawa, creating the finest assembly of his portraits that we're ever likely to see, but still coming out at manageably sub-blockbuster size (four quite small rooms). Unfortunately the exhibition is in the ground-floor galleries, with no natural light and a certain amount of glare on the larger canvases. Some objects resembling those in the pictures have also been assembled, to no very good purpose, but happily there are also a few Lotto drawings, which are well worth studying.

  It was a good idea to include some of Lotto's religious paintings too. They might not have been his strong suit, but they include some dazzlingly fine painting, and indeed portraiture. The St Catherine in the right foreground of the stunning Sacra Conversazione (from the Palazzo Barberini) is rendered with exquisite delicacy, almost in a Mannerist style  – and look at that Madonna, clearly a portrait from life.
But the portraits are the point, and they are, from the first, astonishing in their power and intensity. Even in his early days, around 1500, Lotto was painting portraits of startling directness and equally striking naturalism. His subjects look out at us – at Lotto? – in various states from calm contemplation to deep unease, by way of almost aggressive confrontation and smug self-advertisement.

As the years pass, the portraits become more complex, pictorially and symbolically, and the range of Lotto's skill becomes ever more evident – his highly distinctive use of colour, his superb rendering of textures, his original, often slightly awkward, compositions, his beautifully controlled brushwork.

At the same time, the mood of melancholy becomes ever more insistent. Few of Lotto's subjects seem entirely happy or at ease, and some appear all but suicidal.

Is Lotto penetrating these unhappy souls and laying them bare, or are his sitters reflecting back at him his own melancholy?

Lotto was clearly an unhappy man, and became more so as he got older. He had achieved huge respect as a painter, but seems never to have been financially secure, and he became disillusioned with the whole business, returning to his birthplace, Venice, to lodge with the monks at Ss Givoanni e Paolo, painting little and gradually abandoning portraiture. (The great altarpiece of The Alms of St Antoninus of Florence from that church is in the exhibition – the first time it has left Venice. That's a detail of it at the bottom.)
 His last portraits seem more tender and compassionate, and are certainly quieter and plainer than those of his heyday, but with no loss of depth.

Lotto died almost forgotten, and it wasn't until Bernard Berenson rediscovered him in the 1890s, hailing him as the first 'psychological' portraitist, that his reputation began to rise again, and the more so as many paintings previously attributed to others were reassigned to Lotto. This exhibition should do much to make this extraordinary painter better known and his works more appreciated. It's on until February 10th, and it's not to be missed.



  1. Lotto is also a favourite of mine Nige. I had always assumed, perhaps wrongly, he was a mannerist along with Pontormo and Bronzino. I recently learnt that his skill in painting Anatolian carpets like the one in the St Antoninus above led to their being commonly known as 'Lotto carpets.'

  2. Yes, the go-to guy for carpets! I always thought of him as later than he is – he's a contemporary of Titian and Giorgione, after all. That makes his early work seem even more amazing.