London National Gallery in Pursuit of Pontormo

News out of England earlier this week suggests that London’s National Gallery is very close to raising the funds needed to acquire Jacopo Pontormo’s Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap (1530). The subject of a protracted battle that has been raging since late 2015, Pontormo’s painting, one of only 15 surviving portraits by the artist, is slated to be purchased by the London institute for more than £30 million (more than $36 million). 

Nearly three centuries after the commission of the portrait by Florentine nobleman Carlo Neroni, Pontormo’s painting was purchased by the Third Earl of Caledon in 1825. It then remained in the family until 2015, when it was sold to Tomilson, or Tom, Hill, a hedge fund banker in New York. Wanting to keep the painting in Europe, authorities places a temporary export ban on the painting in late December 2015 and then rushed to find a buyer in the UK who could match the price, an amount complicated by the manner in which the purchaser had paid and its tax implications. 

Art writer Jonathan Jones’ impassioned plea to keep the painting in London appeared in The Guardian today. In it he suggests that the historical importance of this portrait is equal to its art historical value: 

“Why does it matter? Why is it so important to keep this particular painting in Britain? Perhaps because it is not just a beautiful portrait but a moving document of politics and history. For this is a picture of a young idealist: a relic of revolution.” 

Jones is referring here to the fact that sitter Carlo Neroni is depicted as a Republican volunteer, alluding to the defense of Florentine liberty against the 1529-1530 siege by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s forces. This militaristic intensity, amplified by his bold posture and striking alertness, is tempered by the tender inclusion of the love note Neroni holds in his right hand. 

The export ban will expire on 22 October, but the National Gallery is very close to acquiring the necessary funding. The UK Treasury has promised almost £19 million, which means the National Gallery needs to find roughly  £11 million in the next week to cover the Pontormo purchase price. If the plan works, Pontormo’s Portrait of a Young Man will become one of the most expensive pieces in the National Gallery’s collection; whether or not the American collector will agree to the offer, though, remains to be seen. 

Further reading: 
Jonathan Jones, “This painting is a masterpiece of love and war – Britain must break the bank to keep it” (The Guardian, 14 October 2016). 

Martin Bailey, “London’s National Gallery Close to buying £30m Pontormo portrait” (The Art Newspaper, 13 October 2016). 

Martin Bailey, “London’s National Gallery seeks Treasury’s help to buy £30m Italian Old Master” (1 September 2016). 

Matthew Weaver, “UK buyer sought for £30m Pontormo painting” (The Guardian, 24 December 2015). 

Pontormo, Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap, 1530. Image courtesy of the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport/Artnet News). 

Posted by Alexis Culotta

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