- - Sunday, February 1, 2015

The last time the United States saw a Piero di Cosimo retrospective was in 1938, a few months before Germany invaded Prague. More showcase than retrospective, the exhibition consisted of seven paintings at Schaeffer Galleries, a small but important New York gallery that specialized in old master works and sold numerous masterpieces to museums throughout the United States.

For “Piero di Cosimo: “The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Art,” which opened Sunday at the National Gallery of Art, assembled 44 of the painter’s master works from collections throughout the Americas and Europe. However, the exhibition looks more like a collection from several Italian masters than the work of one man.

A chameleon of craft, Piero was as different as his individual works and in many instances playfully quoted the craft of his contemporaries. The figures and translucence of fabric in “The Finding of Vulcan on Lemnos” recalls qualities of Sandro Botticelli’s paintings. The churning water beneath a dying sea beast in “Liberation of Andromeda” echoes Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbook studies of waves.

As with many of his colleagues of the time — Pietro Perugino, Filippino Lippi and Andea del Verrocchio among them — the influence of Netherlandish painting, with its acute attention to the details of fabrics, flora and background, is unmistakable.

Piero’s style wasn’t the only thing to shift over time. With his changing style came shifts in subject matter. Like many old masters of the quattrocento, he painted religious works, portraits and mythological scenes. What made Piero’s work unique was how he interpreted the content of the stories. His two wood-panel pieces interpret Lucretius’ “On the Nature of Things,” and with a relatively muted palette, the old master depicts extreme violence in “A Hunting Scene” as animals are driven from the forest by fire, only to be attacked by dogs and clubbed by satyrs, their corpses carted off by men. A companion piece, “Return From the Hunt,” depicts a quieter setting away from the hunting fires in the background. Women tend to an orphaned cub, as well as injured men, satyrs and centaurs.

“It’s almost the inverse of what you would expect,” said Dennis Geronimus, who co-curated the exhibition. “All of these hybrids known for their violence, and [Piero] is asking you to complete the story: that there isn’t one interpretation of how these mythical animals lived.”

But not all of the magical moments in this exhibition are the result of strange subjects or curious details. Sometimes, just the facts are enough. For example, there is the eloquently painted “Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Elizabeth of Hungary, Catherine of Alexandria, Peter, and John the Evangelist with Angels.” It is what one might expect from a Renaissance painting depicting the Madonna and Christ child: The saints are contemplative; objects and gestures are rife with symbolism. Brightly colored garments flow with abundant drapery, accented with fine detail.

Completed the year after Columbus arrived in the New World, this exhibition is the first and likely only time the painting has traveled outside of Florence. That fact alone underscores the significance of this exhibition, which travels in June to the Uffizi in Florence, the museum which helped organize the exhibition.

As co-curator Gretchen Hirschauer points out in the accompanying catalog, for the past century Piero was a painter cherished by curators and historians for his idiosyncrasies but little known outside of academia. Because of the age and fragility of the work, few institutions were willing to part with their Pieros for a smaller exhibition featuring a dozen of his paintings from collections across the United States. But, as the scope and scale of the exhibition increased, more institutions made an exception, recognizing that this exhibition might expand our knowledge of the Renaissance.

“There are some artists in the textbooks today — like Botticelli or Piero della Francesca — who were long forgotten for centuries and then rediscovered by writers and artists,” Mr. Geronimus said.

This exhibition of Piero di Cosimo is a revealing reminder that answers why art history requires constant revision and expansion.

Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Art” runs through May 3 at the National Gallery of Art.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide