On ViewNational Gallery Of Art, Washington D.C
September 15, 2019 – January 12, 2020
About midway through the National Gallery’s exhibition Andrea del Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence, you find yourself standing in front of a beautiful young woman carved from marble that has mellowed to a honey-brown hue. Portrayed from the waist up, the figure appears before you, head tilted slightly to one side. She—you readily abandon the impersonal pronoun—is lost in reverie, and clasps a small bouquet of flowers against her breast. Because of the subtle coordination of her head and hands, you do not so much see as feel her presence, sensing her breath, the pulsing of her blood, even the movements of her mind. She brushes her left hand with her right, lifting an index finger. This raised finger suggests a thought that has just come or gone: she remembers someone, a beloved perhaps, and in so doing recalls in you real persons you’ve known. It is only when another visitor arrives by your side, and you grudgingly yield a share of the view, that you realize you have been standing very close for some time.
Such is the power of Andrea del Verrocchio’s Lady with Flowers (c. 1475), that you might find yourself embarrassed, as I was, in the middle of a museum, surprised that art, working, in this cynical age, on a jaded audience, can still have such an intimate effect. And, as shown in this thoughtful, tightly-curated exhibition, Verrocchio’s art does surprise, more than once, proving that even half-forgotten Renaissance masters can make an impression as fresh as anything conjured by the art of our own time. Verrocchio, who worked in everything from stone to silver to ink to oils to bronze, produced effects like no artist before him, mastering the portrayal of human psychology and movement. Although he was capable of great subtlety, he could also go all out. When his figures grimace, they contort their faces with shocking force, their mouths gaping so wide that we see their teeth and tongues. When his figures move, they often leap or fly, drapery swirling around them—it comes as no surprise to learn that Verrocchio invented motion lines. Through the careful articulation of limbs and the heightening of facial expression, Verrocchio proves the magic of a representational art whose benchmark is lived human experience. At its best, it feels more real than reality itself, lodging itself deep in the viewer’s mind.
Some of Verrocchio’s greatest hits are here. Greeting viewers at the entrance of the exhibition is the bronze David (c. 1465), cast for his Medici patrons. Seen in person, the newly-restored David appears less aloof than he does in reproductions. Veins in his slender arms course with the strength he famously used to brain his foe: Goliath’s gory head is heaped at his feet. There is also the well-known Putto with Dolphin (c. 1470), notable as the first sculpture of the Renaissance that was planned to reward viewing from any direction. As such, it is a strong demonstration of Verrocchio’s inventive sculptural practice (another: the aforementioned Lady with Flowers is probably the first Renaissance marble bust to include arms and hands).
Even as the show highlights Verrocchio’s innovations in sculpture, it also emphasizes his pioneering drawings, which occupy a room of their own. Above all, we see how Verrocchio manipulated new media, like black chalk, which he smudged with damp fingers or a stump of leather to blend shadows of unprecedented depth and variation. In spectacular examples of this technique, such as the Head of a Woman with Braided Hair (c. 1475-78), he creates the smoky shadows called sfumato in Italian, anticipating his great pupil, Leonardo da Vinci, who would make much of these murky gradations.
As with any artist, Verrocchio has his occasional misses. He composed best with one or two figures: in more complex narrative scenarios, he often falls back on obvious symmetries. He was also a more consistent sculptor than painter. Indeed, although he could wield the brush with stupendous skill, Verrocchio frequently relied on members of his workshop to complete his paintings. A common practice in fifteenth-century Florence, these collaborations sometimes have a pleasing cumulative effect. In such cases, like Tobias and the Angel (c. 1470), a client might get figures by Verrocchio with a fish by Leonardo thrown in. But these workshop pictures occasionally break down, failing to cohere and forcing your gaze to dodge drab pieces of drapery or badly-turned limbs. Luckily, the Washington curators have concentrated on stronger offerings from Verrocchio’s gifted crew. After all, no teacher or artist has ever trained so many high-achievers. Besides Leonardo, there was Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, and Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Coming to the end of the show, you find that the last gallery is not centered on a painting by Verrocchio, and focuses instead on Leonardo’s early masterpiece, the Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1478). But then you remember that Leonardo’s Ginevra, perfect though she seems, is a fragment. When new, the sitter appeared waist-length, not bust-length as she appears here, and her hands were held against her bodice, her left cradling flowers like Verrocchio’s marble lady. You read the words inscribed on the wall overhead: “Whatever painters have that is good they drank from Verrocchio’s spring.” So wrote Ugolino Verino, the fifteenth-century Florentine poet. By this point you may be ready to agree.