Half-length portrait of a youth looking upwards

ca. 1500

Black chalk, worked over with a brush, on brownish paper, a strip of paper added on the left
Inv. No. 453

35.4 × 25.5 cm

This monumental, almost life-size chalk drawing was probably made in preparation for a large altarpiece or mural painting. One could imagine this upward-gazing youth, who has one hand tucked into his clothing above his chest, as one of a group of mourners assembled beneath Christ’s cross, as a saint in a »Sacra Conversazione« contemplating the Virgin Mary, or possibly as one of the astonished apostles in an »Ascension« scene. The drawing may have been intended as a portrait, in which case this could be a donor gazing devoutly heavenward. However, the portrait-like appearance might also have come about because a member of the artist’s workshop, for example, stood model for the figure. We know of no actually executed painting that would help us resolve this question.


At all events, the artist clearly set out to achieve a lifelike and three-dimensional effect and to reproduce the appearance of different kinds of surface materials by employing contrasts and fine transitions between light and shade. The dark half of the background makes the face, which is turned towards the light, stand out, while the side of the head that is shaded contrasts with a bright area behind. The eye sockets, the nose and the area around the mouth are modelled with fine shadows; a progressive darkening on the cheek makes the head appear fully rounded – an effect reinforced by a reflection of light below the chin and the strong use of black between the neck and the hair. A dark upper lip and light lower lip not only give the mouth greater plasticity but also make it appear alive and sensitive, while the hair, for its part, has a soft and lustrous quality. It is a manner of working which takes a conception of light and shade as its point of departure. That circumstance, along with the rich use of tonal gradations, locates the work as one of the Venetian Renaissance. In Florence, on the other hand, artists of the period in question attached more importance to line.


Although a number of Venetian paintings and drawings from the period around 1500 have a close kinship with this drawing, it has not yet proven possible to ascribe it to a particular artist. When it was purchased for the Städel Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings in the nineteenth century it was considered a work by Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1430-1516); as time went on, it was attributed to various artists of the latter’s school. Most recently, scholars favour its ascription to Alvise Vivarini (1452/53 – ca. 1505) or a draughtsman working directly with him.

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