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Watts and Macchietti

The monumental portrait A Knight of S. Stefano was once owned by the Victorian painter George Frederic Watts. It was a work he held in very high regard, describing it as "a fine one". He found inspiration in the long gown and grandiose posture, painting many of his own sitters in similarly magnificent costumes.

The red cross emblazoned on the man’s gown tells us that he is a knight of the military order of Santo Stefano, which was founded in Pisa in 1561. His identity is a mystery but the objects that surround him – the carved table, inkwell, and papers – all allude to his cultivation and learning.

This was an extraordinary acquisition for Watts, as life-size, full-length portraits were rare in 16th-century Tuscan art. At the time, the painting was thought to by the 16th-century Florentine artist Pontormo but is now attributed to Macchietti, who was born in Florence around forty years later.

We don’t know where or when Watts acquired the painting. He had spent four years in Italy during his twenties studying Renaissance art, and his love of Italy later earned him the nickname ‘Signor’. His admiration for the Italian masters shaped his art and was also reflected in the works that he owned, which included several Old Master paintings alongside contemporary works.

Watts described his paintings as "his only fortune" but was also eager to share them with a wider public. Driven by a philanthropic spirit, in 1861 he gave this portrait to the National Gallery.