This is one of Moroni’s most famous paintings. The dress and the style of the painting suggest that he made it late in his career, around 1570.
The cloth merchant or tailor looks up at us, interrupted from his work. His cream and red costume contrasts with the black fabric marked with chalk lines that he is preparing to cut. He wears a sword belt, denoting high status, and his clothes are those of a successful professional rather than an artisan; he may have been a senior officer of a guild, proud to be portrayed at his work. The portrait appears to capture a fleeting moment, like a snapshot, giving it a startling vitality and psychological realism highly unusual for the time.
The immediacy and vividness of this portrait may be partly due to Moroni’s method of painting directly from life without making preliminary drawings.
A young man wearing a fustian jacket decorated with a pattern of small slashes and full red slashed breeches glances up from his work. He looks directly at us, creating a strong sense of intimacy. A gold ring set with a ruby glints on his little finger and he holds a pair of cloth shears, as though he is about to cut the black fabric marked with white chalk lines on the table in front of him.
The portrait does not appear to be posed but seems to capture a fleeting moment, like a snapshot. It as though we have interrupted the man, like customers entering his shop. He reacts to our presence and stops what he is doing for a moment. The portrait’s vitality, expressive impact and psychological realism are highly unconventional and unusual for the time.
This is one of Moroni’s most famous paintings. The dress and the style of the painting suggest that he made it late in his career, around 1570. Moroni’s early portraits, such as A Knight with his Jousting Helmet, depict members of the provincial nobility, professionals, clergymen and intellectuals, reflecting his success with the highest levels of Bergamask society. During the 1560s he began to paint sitters of more modest occupation. This change seems to have coincided with the unstable political situation in Bergamo and Moroni’s return to his provincial hometown of Albino toward the end of the decade.
The Italian author and satirist, Pietro Aretino (1492–1556), lamented in a letter of 1554 that he lived in a degenerate age in which ‘even the tailors and vintners are given life by painters’. However, this tailor’s clothes are those of a successful, middle-class professional rather than an artisan. The belt he wears around his waist has a loop for a sword, which is more significant than the shears as an indicator of his status: only men of some social standing were permitted to carry a sword. He may have been a senior officer of a guild, proud to be portrayed at his work, or a cloth merchant. Some members of the tailor’s profession were of a similarly high status to court painters, especially if they had important clients. A portrait by Girolamo Bedoli (1500–1569) now in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, showing a man with an iron rule, pair of cloth shears and a length of sumptuous damask, is described in old inventories as a tailor in the service of Pope Paul III. Several artists were related to tailors, such as Andrea del Sarto, and Agostino and Annibale Carracci.
If it was modest not to wear a sword when you had a right to do so, it was even more modest to be depicted holding shears if there was no need. The right to carry arms indicated that you had a name and family honour to defend, but handling tools potentially lowered your status. In Genoa in the second half of the sixteenth century a citizen could be ennobled if he were involved in the wholesale cloth trade, but not if he engaged in retail or manual labour such as ‘weighing, cutting and measuring’. Painters were sensitive to such distinctions, but Moroni emphasises the dignity in skilled work. He painted what is probably the only Renaissance image of a great artist that emphasises the nobility of manual labour: his portrait of the great Venetian sculptor Alessandro Vittoria (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) shows him holding a sculpted marble torso with his sleeve rolled up, displaying a muscular, veined forearm.
Moroni painted directly from life without making preliminary drawings and this method adds to the portrait’s vividness and spontaneity. Some of the most lovely passages were painted on top of paint that was still wet – for example the grey mixed with ginger in the tailor’s beard, the fine dark hair at his temple and the grey in the shadows in the tunic. The flesh is rather thinly painted as is typical of some of Moroni’s last paintings – the texture of the canvas is clearly visible. In the slashed areas of the breeches the contrast between pale yellow and moss green paint may have originally been softened with a glaze but now appears very abrupt.
The colours of the tailor’s own costume contrast with the black fabric he is preparing to cut. His outfit is unlike that worn by most of the sitters in Moroni’s later portraits, such as the Portrait of Leonardo Salvagno (?), as they are dressed in black in the Spanish fashion that persisted into the next century. The muted grey background, however, is similar to those found in other late portraits by Moroni, such as Portrait of a Man holding a Letter and Portrait of a Man with Raised Eyebrows. The scene is lit from above and to the left, the light glistening on the sitter’s forehead and nose. Moroni has used shadow to create a diagonal from top left to lower right across the composition, which is continued down the tailor’s left arm to the cloth on the table. His head is tilted away from this diagonal, drawing our attention to his face and expression, as well as leading our eye to his hands, which also express character. This compositional device can also be seen in Portrait of a Man holding a Letter.
Moroni’s portraits up to about 1560 typically have a high sheen and sharp focus which links them to the work of Lombard painters such as Lotto and Moroni’s teacher Moretto. This picture has a softer, more atmospheric quality, which owes much to Titian and Venetian painting. But Moroni’s realism is unlike Titian’s idealised portraits. His emphasis on truth to nature may have been morally as well as aesthetically motivated. It was formed in a spiritual climate of religious reform during the Council of Trent (1545–1563), a city in and around which Moroni worked. Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti’s Discourse on Sacred and Profane Images (published 1582), which expresses Counter-Reformation ideas about art, encouraged an ‘honest’ or ‘true and natural’ mode of portraiture.
The canvas was lined with another larger canvas in 1863 and the painted area extended by two or three centimetres on each side, as the composition was originally very tightly cropped. This was also the case with many of Moroni’s other portraits, which were also extended to accord with later taste.
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