Saturday, September 8, 2018

Ginevra de' Benci

In The Truth about Lola, the book that accompanied my 2008-09 retrospective, Bartholomew Bland, curator of the exhibition, wrote the following about this painting:

Eliza with Saigon Martini
2000, oil on linen, 6 1/4" x 5"
Private collection, New York

Eliza with Saigon Martini is a classic pose of the world–weary woman [ ... ]. With her décolletage and slightly sullen demeanor, Eliza perhaps most closely resembles the figure in Leonardo da Vinci's Ginevra de Benci, with a cocktail and a cigarette.

I was extremely pleased by the reference because the Leonardo is one of my favorite paintings in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and I always make an effort to see it whenever I'm there.

Ginevra de' Benci
Leonardo da Vinci
1474/1478, oil on panel , 15" x 15"
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The painting was acquired by the National Gallery in  February 1967 for around 5 million dollars (or ca. 38 million in today's dollars). I believe that was a record price at the time for the purchase of any painting, though it seems quite a bargain by today's standards. Sold to the museum by the House of Liechtenstein, the painting traveled across the Atlantic in a specially-modified suitcase nestled in its own first-class seat on a Swissair flight.

I remember standing in a considerable crowd to see it for the first time. When I finally had a few moments to look closely I was amazed by the subtlety of the tones, the exquisiteness of the details, the beauty of the ringlets of hair and the pattern of the juniper behind her. 

The psychological aspect of the Leonardo's painting was also intriguing. Ginevra  was 18 or 20 at the time the portrait was made and a few years before had married Luigi Niccolini, a respected Florentine from a moderately wealthy family. Her melancholy in the portrait has been attributed to different reasons, depending on the source. One, that her health was poor. Another - more romantic - was that she was pining for her lover, Bernardo Bembo, the Venetian ambassador to Florence who had been recalled home.

Years later in graduate school, I wrote a paper about the painting for a required art history course. I compared it to a painting by Lorenzo di Credi (1456/59-1536) in the Metropolitan Museum in New York - Portrait of a Young Woman - who is similarly backed by juniper and a receding landscape. The woman's grief - a recent widow - is represented by the iconography of the ring and the black dress. The point of my paper was that Leonardo's portrait presented the sitter's emotional state without the use of symbolic clues. The paper is long lost, but it was rather grandly titled Ginevra de' Benci: The First Psychological Portrait. My professor liked it, though I'm far from expert enough to know if my conclusion was actually true.

Portrait of a Young Woman
Lorenzo di Credi
1490/1500 oil on panel , 23" x 16"
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

I painted Eliza again nine years later, a little older and with a more sophisticated drink:

Woman Smoking: Eliza
2009, oil on line,  7 1/2" x 6"
Private collection, Maine


  1. Andrew -- fascinating. Brilliant. Bravo!

  2. Whether ill or sad or both, Ginevra was clearly a very beautiful woman with many admirers. She also had a number of poems written about her.

    Eliza no doubt inspires poetry as well.



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