An unidentified man regards us with a look of affable irony, his eyebrows raised. His chain mail sleeves and tunic would have been worn beneath plate armour, suggesting that he engages in some form of military activity. Similar costume is worn by noblemen in other portraits by Moroni.
The sitter’s reaction to our presence – raising his eyebrows – creates a strong sense of psychological interaction. This expression is unusual in portraiture at this date although Moroni repeated it elsewhere. The feathery brushstrokes in the face, beard and hair bring a liveliness and spontaneity to this small, intimate portrait, and add to the sense that this is a fleeting expression painted rapidly from life.
Moroni uses unobtrusive diagonals set up by background shadows and the slope of the shoulders to give emphasis to the sitter’s raised eyebrows and the tilt of his head. The subtlety of both expression and composition is characteristic of Moroni’s late work.
An unidentified man turns to us with a look of affable irony, his eyebrows raised. This expression is unusual in portraiture at this date although Moroni repeated it elsewhere. It creates a strong sense of psychological interaction between the subject of the portrait and us, the viewers: the momentary expression suggests that the man is reacting to our presence. We are not only looking at him, he is looking at us – what is more, he is responding to us. His raised eyebrows suggest that he is somewhat amused or unconvinced by what he sees.
We gain a sense not just of the man’s appearance, but also his character and mood, and engage with him almost as though he were present. The feathery brushstrokes in the face, beard and hair bring a liveliness and spontaneity to the portrait, which add to the sense that this is a fleeting expression painted rapidly from life.
The subtlety of both expression and composition is characteristic of Moroni’s late work. He uses unobtrusive diagonals set up by background shadows and the slope of the shoulders to give emphasis to the raised eyebrows and the tilt of the head. The style of the broad white collar is typical of the 1570s; it is also found in a Moroni portrait of a man with a similar raised eyebrow now in the University of Arizona in Tucson.
The costume reveals that the man engages in some form of military activity. His chain mail sleeves would have been attached to an arming doublet beneath the black tunic he wears, which is fastened with decorative gold buttons. Chain mail sleeves can be seen in Moroni’s Portrait of a Gentleman with his Helmet on a Column Shaft. Chain mail and this type of tunic would have been worn beneath plate armour for war or for tournaments – a form of military recreation, display and training adopted by the nobility. Contemporary plate armour can be seen strewn on the ground in Moroni’s A Knight with his Jousting Helmet. The man portrayed here with his eyebrows raised may be a nobleman, which perhaps makes this moment of apparently unguarded intimacy even more surprising.
This portrait is a particularly striking example of Moroni’s preference for placing the top of the sitter’s head very close to the upper edge of the canvas. The painting now has a 3.5 cm wide strip of canvas added to the upper edge, so originally the head was even closer to the top of the picture.
This is also a good example of Moroni’s tendency to paint the background after completing the figure. It is very thinly and freely painted; in many areas the threads and weave of the canvas show through. The brownish priming layer is visible all around the figure where the background grey has not been completed. This may be because the painting is unfinished or it may be a deliberate choice by the artist.
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