Portrait of a Lady in Yellow

The Italian painter Baldovinetti was well known in Florence, yet few of his works seem to have survived. They include the remarkable Portrait of a Lady in Yellow hanging in London’s National Gallery.

The Renaissance painter Alesso Baldovinetti (1425-99) was born into the family of a rich Florentine merchant. In 1448, barely aged 20, he was registered as a member of the artists’ Company of St Luke (Compagnia di San Luca) where it is likely he was taught by Domenico Veneziano and where may have met Piero della Francesca.

Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550) highlighted unusual elements of Baldovinetti’s style, including the use of straw yellow. Four hundred years later, in History of Italian Renaissance Art (1970) the American professor of art history, Frederick Hartt described Baldovinetti as “a very gifted master who somehow never quite seemed to fulfil his great initial promise.”

Portrait of a Lady in Yellow was painted in the second half of the 15th century, most likely around 1465. It was purchased by the National Gallery in London in 1866 when it was believed to be a portrait of Countess Palma of Urbino by Piero della Francesca. But in 1911 the art historian Roger Fry disputed the attribution, claiming that the technique, colour scheme and the form of the woman’s face and drapery could only be credited to Baldovinetti.

The sitter is shown in profile, set against a uniform blue background in a canvas lacking in either perspective or depth. Instead, the focus of the work is on the fineries of both her headdress and adorned sleeve. The identity of the sitter remains uncertain although art historians have looked for clues in the pattern in her sleeve. Undoubtedly a heraldic design, its three palm leaves, with two dark feathers bound by ribbon, would have represented the coat of arms of her family or her suitor’s. Given her costume and jewels, she was almost certainly a noblewoman.

In 1924 it was suggested that she may be Francesca delgi Stati, wife of Angelo di Galli an accomplished diplomat and courtier and a minor poet from Urbino. In 1445 Francesca was celebrated for uncovering a plot against the life of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. The emblem of the Galli family consisted of tre penne (three quills), although Baldovinetti’s portrait depicts two, not three. There is a further link in the palm leaves, which were a decorative motif for the homes of members of the family, and the Galli palazzo in Urbino was often known as the palazzo della palme. In fact in 1599, the family changed its name to Palma.

Baldovinetti had the reputation of being the best worker in mosaic of his day. He is known to have done two strips of mosaic decoration over Lorenzo Ghiberti’s doors on the Baptistery in Florence (1453–55), but few works survive and little to nothing is known of his personal life. When he died, he bequeathed all his worldly goods to St Paul’s Hospital in Florence “on condition that his faithful servant, Mea, be lodged, clad and fed during her lifetime.” Interestingly, Baldovinetti’s will was drawn up by the father of Leonardo da Vinci, who was a notary. It is probable that the older Alesso knew the younger Leonardo, who joined the same Company of St Luke in Florence in 1472, and even that he taught him some of his recipes for paints. But we shall never know for certain.

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