A younger contemporary of Giovanni Bellini and Andrea Mantegna, Bartolomeo Montagna became the leading painter in the north Italian town of Vicenza in the last decades of the 15th century, but also painted elsewhere the Veneto, including major commissions in Verona, Padua and Venice. Throughout his career, which lasted from the 1470s until the end of his life, he produced a substantial number of altarpieces, frescoes and smaller devotional pictures, remaining responsive to new artistic developments while retaining an atmospheric quality all of his own, which has been described as ‘sombre, truthful and compassionate’ (F. L. Richardson in The Dictionary of Art, London, 1996, XXI, p. 906).
As a draughtsman, Montagna left a corpus of about thirty works, most of them now in public collections (for a fairly complete overview, see Puppi, op. cit., pp. 143-147, ill.). The Harewood sheet counts undoubtedly among his finest, and is moreover very well preserved. In its intricate technique – a combination of point of the brush, pen, and white bodycolour on blue paper – and its focus on a single, monumental figure, it is most closely related to a drawing of a semi-nude woman holding a small sphere and a caduceus, also standing on a little mound, at the Louvre (inv. 8258; see Cordellier, op. cit., no. 1, ill.); and one, reproduced here as Fig. 1, of a nude man holding a cornucopia-like staff in New York (inv. 1974.1; see R. Eitel-Porter in Italian Renaissance Drawings at the Morgan Library and Museum, exhib. cat., New York, 2019, no. 12, ill.). Both have been dated circa 1515, making this a late work, but it should be noted that Montagna had been using a similar technique since at least the 1480s, as attested by a drawing of a King at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (M. Lucco, Bartolomeo Cincani, detto Montagna. Dipinti, Treviso, 2014, pp. 36-37, fig. 7). In the disciplined, tight hatching, the present drawing and those in Paris and New York achieve a Mantegnesque, sculpture-like quality of great refinement and three-dimensionality quite unsurpassed in Montagna’s own œuvre or that of most of his contemporaries or predecessors.
The three drawings also stand out for their secular subject-matter: while nearly all surviving paintings of Montagna are religious, they seem to carry a mythological or allegorical meaning which cannot be fully clarified. It is tempting to associate them with the fresco paintings Montagna carried out for his main Vicentine patrons, the Gualdo family, as suggested by Genevieve Verdigel, to whom we are grateful. Little is known about the decorative scheme at the Gualdo house in the Borgo Pusterla neighbourhood of Vicenza, which does not survive; but speaking for the family’s humanistic culture, it included several mythological or allegorical figures, described by a 17th Century descendant as ‘full-length, in their appropriate poses, and life size’ (G. Gualdo, Jr., 1650. Giardino di Chà Gualdo, L. Puppi, ed., Florence, 1973, p. 29: ‘tutte queste figure sono in piedi con li loro moti adequati e di naturale grandezza’; see also B. Morsolin, ‘Il Museo Gualdo in Vicenza’, Nuovo archivio Veneto, VIII, 1894, p. 188; and Lucco, op. cit., pp. 394-395). Among these figures was Pomona, goddess of fruit and abundance. It is far from certain that the Harewood drawing relates to this particular painted figure, but at the same time very possible that it served for such a commission, either from the Gualdi or from another patron.
The drawing fetched the highest price for an Italian drawing at the 1918 sale of the very distinguished collection of the painter John Poynter. In a letter from the day of the sale, the art historian Tancred Borenius, who had published the drawing in 1916, informed the buyer, Viscount Lascelles, later Lord Harewood, that ‘the superb Montagna [was run] up to £960 by a dealer called Daniels [?], acting, as generally assumed, for some American collector’. Lascelles expressed his surprise at the price, but added being ‘very glad to have it. I was very anxious to get it.’ (letter to Borenius of 1 May 1918; with thanks to Rebecca Burton, archivist at Harewood House). Whatever its precise subject, function and date, the drawing is not only an eloquent proof of the considerable personality and exceptional talent of its author, but also a rare, large and highly accomplished survival from one of the most exciting times in Italian art.