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First Exhibition of Rare Paintings by Italian Master Ercole de' Roberti opens on April 27 at the J. Paul Getty Museum

The art of an early Renaissance master is examined for the first time
Exhibition dates: April 27-July 11, 1999

March 19, 1999

Los Angeles, CA--Ercole de’ Roberti: The Renaissance in Ferrara will be on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum from April 27 through July 11, 1999. Focusing on the small, intensely detailed paintings of this Renaissance master, the exhibition features 12 works that together form nearly half of the artist’s total surviving oeuvre and span his entire career, from around 1473 to 1496. Ercole de’ Roberti (b. ca. 1456-d. 1496) was the most accomplished artist of his time, serving the Este court of Ferrara, an important civic and cultural power in Northern Italy. This first exhibition devoted to his work was organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum.

The exhibition explores the development of Ercole’s style, technique, and achievement by uniting the Museum’s recently acquired Saint Jerome in the Wilderness (about 1474) with works from collections in Germany, Britain, France, Italy, and the United States. It provides a perspective on the development of court painting in Ferrara during the late 1400s and is presented concurrently with Dosso Dossi, Court Painter in Renaissance Ferrara, the first exhibition on another important, but relatively unknown Renaissance master who served the Este court a generation later.

"Ercole’s pictures reveal an artist of extraordinary creativity and emotive power," said Scott Schaefer, the Museum’s Curator of Paintings. "By bringing them together for the first time, we can begin to understand why Michelangelo exclaimed that Ercole’s frescoes in Bologna were ‘worth half of Rome in quality.’ Although much of Ercole’s work, including the admired frescoes, is now lost, his vision can be appreciated in the intimately scaled panels of this exhibition. Ercole shaped the Ferrarese court style of his day and influenced the artists of the following generation."

Many of Ercole’s early paintings were part of larger religious commissions, such as the Griffoni altarpiece in Bologna (about 1473-4). Saint Apollonia and Saint Michael, two works from this altarpiece, present the figures as if they are stepping out of the architecture of their shallow niches, not unlike the sculpture of the period. Saint Jerome (about 1474, J. Paul Getty Museum) as well as Saint John the Baptist (about 1478, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) are considered masterpieces for their expressive, exaggerated depiction of the human figure.

During a career of less than 25 years, Ercole earned fame and prominence. From 1486-96, he was court painter to Ercole I d’Este (r. 1471-1505) and his wife Eleonora, Duke and Duchess of Ferrara. These years are represented by a spectacular series depicting illustrious women of classical antiquity who chose to take their own lives rather than be dishonored. The series, painted around 1486-90, includes Portia and Brutus (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth); The Wife of Hasdrubal and her Children (National Gallery of Art, Washington); and Lucretia, Brutus, and Collantinus (Galleria Estense, Modena). In each picture, the figures are placed in curtained theatrical sets, heightening the dramatic narratives. The Duchess Eleonora may have commissioned these works exhorting feminine virtue.

Ercole treated the theme of the Madonna and Child throughout his career. Among his most intimate surviving works is a diptych with images of the Nativity and Christ Supported by Angels with Saints Jerome and Francis (about 1490-93, National Gallery, London). Once belonging to the Duchess Eleonora, the two panels could be opened and closed like a prayer book. A newly constructed hinged frame allows them to be displayed here, open and at an angle, suggesting how the Duchess may have held them during her religious meditations. The Madonna of the Roses (about 1480-85, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Ferrara), is being shown for the first time outside Ferrara, and the delicate and spiritual Madonna and Child (about 1490-96, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) reflects the piety for which the Duchess Eleonora was known.

In preparation for the exhibition, several of Ercole’s works underwent careful conservation analysis and treatment focusing on his use of pigments and media. During the restoration of Saint John the Baptist in the Museum’s paintings conservation studio, a technical study was carried out in collaboration with scientists from the Getty Conservation Institute. The painting, long thought to have been executed in an egg tempera, was found to have been painted primarily using oil as the medium. In a similar finding, analysis of the Museum’s Saint Jerome revealed that it was painted with an egg tempera and oil emulsion. The transition from the use of egg tempera to oil in Italy during the Renaissance has only recently begun to be understood. The exhibition, with its treatment and analysis, contributes to the subject and indicates some new directions to explore. Ferrara has been known as one of the earliest Italian artistic centers in which oil was used, but the experiments in this new medium by Ercole’s predecessor Cosimo Tura were thought to have found no heir. The findings for this exhibition now reveal that the oil tradition continued in Ferrara and that Ercole stood at the forefront of new and exciting developments along with the Venetian artists Antonello da Messina and the Bellini.

Denise Allen, Assistant Curator in the Department of Paintings, organized Ercole de’ Roberti: The Renaissance in Ferrara in collaboration with David Jaffé, now Senior Curator, National Gallery, London, who conceived the exhibition when he was Curator of Paintings at the Getty Museum from 1994 until 1998.

A scholarly catalogue which appears in The Burlington Magazine (April 1999) accompanies the exhibition. With an introduction by Mr. Jaffé, it includes essays by Ms. Allen and Luke Syson, Curator of Medals, the British Museum, and entries by the authors and Jennifer Helvey, Curatorial Assistant in the Getty Museum’s Department of Paintings. An offprint of the catalogue will be available in the Museum Bookstore.

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