Monday, February 6, 2012

Two Miniature Masterpieces at The Renaissance Portrait show in NYC

"A Woman, Possibly a Nun of San Secondo", approx. 3"x 4", by Jacometto Veneziano, oil on wood , ca. 1485 - 1495
Robert Lehman collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art

"Alvise Contarini", by Jacometto Veneziano, approx. 3 1/2" x 5", oil on wood,
Robert Lehman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing several very special shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Italian art from the Renaissance, and in particular, The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini held my interest for hours! What a fascinating show it is, which winds up not only revealing the early history of portraiture, but also becomes a virtual survey of some of the important transitions which artists were making at that time from the medium of egg tempera to oil, and variations thereof.

Among larger masterpieces and sculptures were many profile portraits, so characteristic of this period, but also these two miniature paintings, which happen to be part of the Met's permanent collection. An early 16th century reference identifies this pair as Alvise Contarini and a nun of San Secundo. Possibly they were once a couple and the woman later became a nun after the death of her husband. She certainly looks nun-like to the contemporary eye, yet according to Renaissance dress codes, she is still wearing secular garb in her portrait.

But looking at how these are painted, is it possible that what is labelled 'oil on wood' might actually be tempera grassa, which could account for the very fine level of detail in the woman's hair and in the man's zazzera, a fashionable Renaissance haircut? Tempera grassa, also known as egg-oil emulsion, is a version of egg tempera which is made with oil and egg instead of water and egg, or sometimes oil in combination with water and egg. Tempera grassa recipes vary to this day, but still carry the feeling of an oil painting. In this show some of the paintings were labelled 'tempera and oil on wood'. If it's possible these miniatures were not exclusively done in oils, Veneziano may have either used a layered combination of the two mediums or tempera grassa itself. In any case, as an egg tempera painter, it was fascinating for me to see the ways in which tempera and oil were being used, and even how the application of the paint itself imitated egg tempera brush 'hatching' in some of the early oils in this show which spans 100 years or so.

The Renaissance Portrait will remain at the Met in NYC until March 18, 2012, and if you can't catch it in person, a fine book has been published in conjunction with the show. There are many examples of modern egg tempera painting on my website at and also at


Wes and Rachelle Siegrist said...

Very interesting read Mona! Wish we could have been at the exhibit with you. Small panel paintings, I feel, are overlooked as 'art in little' in the historical development of miniature art. I think this is primarily owing to a definition based upon function. These two works coincide with that of Jean Fouquet and they all date decades prior to Clouet and Horenbout. Truly the small size of these two paintings made them even more amazing in person!

Altoon Sultan said...

This was a beautiful show, and the miniatures were gorgeous. The friend I was with commented on how the artists were using oil paint as though it was egg tempera.

Mona Diane Conner said...

Wes, it would have been great fun to see this show with you and Rachelle, and I am wondering too how these two miniature paintings were originally displayed. In the show they were encased in simple brass holders. It's a shame for panel miniatures to be overlooked, as they tend to have more depth in them than many of the ones which were done on ivory or card.

Mona Diane Conner said...

Altoon, how interesting that your friend had the same thought about the application of paint. No doubt it was a logical progression for artists, based on habit until they became more familiar with the characteristics of oil paint.

For my readers: Altoon is an accomplished egg tempera painter, and I recommend her blog, Studio and Garden at, where she also does stellar reviews of art exhibitions.

Barbara A. Freeman said...

Thanks for sharing these, Mona. You are so fortunate to be able to view this work!

Mona Diane Conner said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it Barbara, and congrats again on your recent honor in miniature painting!

Debra Keirce said...

Glad you had such a good time at the exhibition Mona! You are so fortunate to live in a city where so much culture abounds!!

Liz.Blog said...

Thank you for this excellent post. Interesting to read. I agree about their being a version of egg tempera rather than "oil" paintings.