ANDREA DEL SARTO (1486 - 1531)
Curiously, it was the misfortune of Andrea del Sarto, or Andrea d'Agnolo, as he generally signs himself, to be called the "faultless painter," which is praise that implies a want of ardor, and touches the core of his shortcomings. Over and over he is described as the painter who stops just short of perfect fulfillment, but he ranks high among his contemporaries, Leonardo da Vinci, Michel Angelo and Raphael.
Andrea was the son of a tailor named Agnolo (whence his appellation del Sarto, for Andrea del Sarto merely means "the tailor's Andrew") and when barely of age painted seven frescos from the life of St. Philip Benizzi in the Servile Church of the Annunziata in Florence for the sum of ten florins apiece. They are marvelous productions for so young an artist and remain his most charming and attractive fresco work. Directly after doing these masterpieces he executed a series of chiaroscuro subjects from the life of John the Baptist in the cloisters of the Scalzo or Barefooted Friars, which reveal his remarkable genius at its peak.
Of his wife, who posed for so many of his paintings and who was the widow of a Florentine hatter, Vasari records that "her violent and overbearing temper drove away his favorite pupil, and several of his best apprentices, while her extravagance involved him in constant difficulties. He soon found that he had not only his wife but her father and sisters to keep, compelling him to toil incessantly and to neglect his own parents," who, if we are to believe Vasari, "died in miserable poverty."
Sacrifice of Isaac, 1525
The Annunciation, 1512
At thirty-two, Andrea found a generous patron in King Francis I of France, but while he was enjoying the change from the narrowness and poverty of his Florentine life to the splendor of the French court his wife became impatient for his return, "being more anxious to profit by his gains than to see him again." Her entreaties prevailed, and he obtained royal leave to return to Florence and take his wife to Paris. Instead of doing the latter he remained in Florence and "spent the money which Francis I had given him to purchase works of art for his palace at Fontainebleau, in buying land and building a house near the Annunziata."
In spite of his industry and of his great reputation, Andrea del Sarto never attained a position commensurate to his rare talents. During the siege of Florence he suffered many privations, and welcomed a commission to paint on the walls of the Podesta palace the effigies of some rebels who had been executed as traitors. Professing to be ashamed of the task, he announced that one of his apprentices would do it, but really did it himself, going to and fro by night, and hiding behind a screen when at work.
His life appears to have been a triple tragedy from the handicap of his marriage, from his own weakness of character and from the fact, as the Messrs. Blashfield point out, that "he came just too soon or too late, at a time when the greatest rewards fell naturally to three men who possessed the one high spiritual quality denied to Andrea the inspiration of conviction." Nevertheless, no student of his work at its best can escape the potency of his spell.
He fell a victim to the plague which followed the sacking of Florence by the Spaniards in 1531, and passed away at forty-five, deserted even by his wife who fled in terror from the house and left him to die alone. She survived him forty years. One day in 1570, it is said, an aged woman stopped in the court of the Annunziata to watch an artist copying Andrea del Sarto's "Birth of the Virgin." She told him that it was her portrait, and that she was the widow of the artist who painted the fresco.