Portrait of a Lady

This fashionably dressed young woman represents an ideal of femininity often celebrated in Renaissance Florence. Her physical beauty would have been considered a reflection of moral virtue, as suggested by the orange blossom she holds, which symbolizes chastity. The identity of the sitter remains a mystery, but the portrait may have been commissioned to commemorate her marriage—she wears a ring and pendant of the kind traditionally given as wedding gifts.

Robert Sterling Clark acquired this sensitive Florentine portrait in 1913, when he was on a European buying trip with his brother Stephen and George Gray Barnard (1863—1938), a noted sculptor and collector.

As was common in the fifteenth century, Domenico Ghirlandaio ran a family workshop. It became one of the most active in Florence and employed two of his brothers, his son, and a brother-in-law. In this period of workshop collaborations the hand of a particular artist is often difficult to identify with certainty. While in the past this painting has been assigned to others, it is now accepted as a work by Domenico because of the high quality of the draftsmanship and the obvious technical competence. . . .

[The sitter’s identity remains unknown.] The orange blossom in her right hand, a traditional adornment of brides, suggests that the painting was a marriage portrait. . . . The painting seems to reflect the influence of Flemish art—for example, in the placement of the subject behind a parapet and in the precise draftsmanship, especially the meticulous rendering of distant people and trees. The exacting technique and emphasis on linear motifs establish crisp patterns of flowing curves, noticeable in the strands of hair cascading down to frame the sitter’s face, in the serpentine road and rivers of the landscape, and even in the sharp folds of the costume. A road at the right picks up the rhythm in the designs of the dress and connects them in a graceful curve. The faraway bridge and walled cityscape on the left appear in a similar location in several contemporary paintings by other masters.

— John. H. Brooks, excerpted from The Clark: Selections from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Steven Kern et al. (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996), p. 22.

Domenico Ghirlandaio

Italian, 1449–1494

Portrait of a Lady

c. 1490

Tempera, oil, and gold on panel

22 1/16 x 14 13/16 in. (56.1 x 37.7 cm); Framed: 31 1/4 x 24 1/4 in. (79.4 x 61.6 cm)


Acquired by Sterling Clark, 1913

1955.938


ON VIEW

Archival Photo

This archival photo depicts the painting prior to Sterling Clark's purchase. While the identity of the woman in this portrait remains a mystery, at some point in the painting's history, a halo, a crown, and a spiked wheel were added to turn the young woman into Saint Catherine of Alexandria—perhaps an enterprising dealer’s attempt to make it easier to sell. These additions were removed when the painting was cleaned in 1913, but traces of the halo are still visible above the young woman’s head.