European Art: 14th-16th Centuries

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Madonna and Child, after 1430

Fra Angelico

Italian, c. 1400-1455
Tempera and gold leaf on panel
18-1/8 x 15 in. (46 x 38.1 cm)
The Norton Simon Foundation
F.1965.1.001.P
© The Norton Simon Foundation

On view

In a 1915 letter to Duveen, the pre-eminent scholar of Italian art Bernard Berenson wrote the following about this painting:

It is an autograph work by Fra Angelico, painted in his best years, in the moment of his fullest maturity … the composition is peculiarly interesting as half-lengths by Fra Angelico are extremely rare. The coloring … is unusually gorgeous. I must add that its preservation is singularly excellent.

Just seven months earlier, in a review of the exhibition of “Italian Primitive Paintings” at the Fogg Museum of Art at Harvard, the painting was said to be “sadly restored, but a valuable example of Fra Angelico’s early manner.” When the painting was sold at the auction of paintings from the collection of Mrs. Benjamin Thaw in Paris in 1922, the photograph in the catalogue very closely resembled the painting as it appears today, and it was sold for one of the highest prices at that sale, 42,000 francs. However, when William Suhr, a conservator who was entrusted with many Duveen paintings, was asked to conserve the piece in 1940, he deemed it “a big mess … the cleaning was back breaking … all flesh tones gone,” although the underdrawings remained of the faces of both the Child and Mary [show image]. Other art historians saw only a tenuous connection to Fra Angelico.

Today, most experts attribute the painting to an early quattrocento master painting in the style of Fra Angelico, while a few others are stalwart in their belief that it is now only a ghost of what Fra Angelico himself had originally intended. The provenance of the piece dates it to the Barons of Lazzari in Sicily, and some historians have speculated that it was this family who commissioned the painting from Fra Angelico for the Convent of the Padri Crociferi, the Order of St. Lazarus, in Messina.

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