Lorenzo Lotto: Venice’s consummate portraitist

Late Renaissance Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto is known primarily for his perceptive portraits of great symbolism and psychological depth. He portrayed a cross section of middle-class sitters, among them clerics, merchants and humanists and in each case he managed to establish a dialogue with the viewer through the sitter’s gaze, which always looks out of the painting. The question every time is: what is so striking about this human being and does it come across through their portrait?

Lotto was born in Venice and although he was influenced by Giovanni Bellini and Antonello da Messina, he always remained somewhat apart from the main Venetian tradition. He was a restless and troubled individual with a nomadic lifestyle, moving between Treviso, the Marches, Rome, Bergamo and Venice. As a painter, he was fairly successful but in his old age he was destitute and was forced to paint numbers on hospital beds to earn a living. After his death, he became almost forgotten.

Lotto’s portraits are consistently the work of a psychological genius. The look of his sitters is always idiosyncratic and penetrating. Beautifully lit faces appear immediate against dark backdrops or Lotto’s famous green curtains. He did away with the usual ledge or parapet to bring his sitters closer, often in half-length or three-quarter-length compositions. There is no conventional flattery, far from it. His figures are accompanied by details about the personality or interests of his sitters.

Lotto’s supposed Self-portrait, my favourite, now hangs in the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. The idea that it might be a self-portrait of the artist is pure conjecture based on the position of the model and the expression of the eyes, which seem to reflect the painter’s own gaze in a mirror. The portrait, set against a plain green background, is extremely restrained and repeats a type that Lotto used frequently, including his use of a bust-length format and the precise modelling.

The work is imbued with a certain lyricism. The sitter looks gravely but energetically at the viewer even though part of his face is in shadow. The intense green tone of the background emphasises the face, framed by the dark hat, hair and clothing. Devoid of any objects which would hint at the aspirations of the subject, this work is all the more enigmatic. As one of the greatest portraitists of the Venetian Renaissance, Lotto does nothing less than open the window into his own soul.