October 26, 2005–January 29, 2006
This first major exhibition of Fra Angelico's work since the quincentenary exhibition of 1955 in Florence—and the first ever in this country—reunites approximately seventy-five paintings, drawings, and manuscript illuminations covering all periods of the artist's career, from ca. 1410 to 1455. Included are several new attributions and paintings never before exhibited publicly, as well as numerous reconstructions of dispersed complexes, some reunited for the first time. An additional forty-five works by Angelico's assistants and closest followers illustrate the spread and continuity of his influence into the second half of the fifteenth century.
Born in the countryside north of Florence, Guido di Pietro was already an established artist when he joined the Dominican order sometime between 1419 and 1422, taking for himself the name Fra Giovanni. He received commissions for important altarpieces from his own monastery, San Domenico, in Fiesole, from other Dominican houses in Florence, Cortona, and Perugia, and from religious institutions as far away as Brescia in the north of Italy and Orvieto and Rome to the south. His prominence as an artist was challenged in Florence only by the brief and meteoric career of Masaccio (1401–1428), many of whose innovations Angelico anticipated in his own, still little-understood early works. By the time Masaccio left Florence for Rome in 1427, Angelico was indisputably the leading painter in Tuscany, a position he maintained for nearly thirty years, eclipsing the reputations of such gifted artists as Fra Filippo Lippi (1406–1469), Domenico Veneziano (ca. 1410–1461), and even the young Piero della Francesca (ca. 1406/12–1492).
Known for his pious treatment of religious subjects—which he portrayed with unprecedented psychological penetration and a compelling realism—Fra Giovanni was first called "pictor angelicus," the Angelic Painter, shortly after his death in 1455, a name that came to be rendered in English as Fra Angelico. In 1984, Fra Angelico was beatified—the first step in the process toward sainthood—by Pope John Paul II, who also decreed him the patron of artists.
Works by Fra Angelico
Much of Angelico's enduring popularity rests on his frescoes—especially those painted in the dormitory cells at the convent of San Marco in Florence—and on altarpieces too large to be safely transported. Instead, the exhibition brings together a nearly complete selection of his works of smaller scale, presenting the entire range of the development of his genius over the full course of his career. Even in his most intimate creations—illuminated initials in liturgical manuscripts—Fra Angelico remained a monumental artist, conceiving narrative, drama, and human form with a grandeur that belied their physical format. His predella panels (the small painted scenes beneath large altarpieces) are among the most forward-looking and innovative works produced in fifteenth-century Florence, while his images of the Virgin and Child still retain their inspirational immediacy and presence, as well as their striking beauty.
The exhibition is arranged chronologically and by attribution. The first decade of Fra Angelico's career, until about 1422, is explored in a group of seventeen paintings and drawings, which range from two recently discovered panels that may be his first efforts as an independent artist to his high altarpiece commissioned for the newly founded convent of San Domenico in Fiesole. Thirty-four additional works on panel, paper, and parchment chronicle his rise to prominence in Florence over the next ten years and his development of a distinctive personal style that paved the way for many of the accomplishments of later Renaissance painters in Tuscany. Chief among these are the panels of a monumental tabernacle triptych now divided among museums in Munich, London, and Parma; the only two surviving independent drawings by Angelico's hand; and ten of the eleven known panels from a reconstructed altarpiece painted for the Da Filicaia family chapel in the church of Santa Croce. Finally, the survey of the artist's career concludes with twenty-four of the finest paintings from the period of his full maturity, including nine fragments from the high altarpiece painted about 1440 for the convent church of San Marco and his last known autograph work, a Crucifixion painted for the Spanish Cardinal, Juan de Torquemada, now in the Fogg Art Museum.
Works by Assistants and Followers
The second half of the exhibition is dedicated to five of Angelico's assistants and followers, each of whom is introduced in the catalogue by a monographic essay and in the exhibition by a representative selection of works. Five paintings by Battista di Biagio Sanguigni, Angelico's first documented colleague, include two panels from the altarpiece dated 1419, which formerly served as the artist's name-piece (Master of 1419) and three other paintings not previously recognized as his. Zanobi Strozzi, who worked alongside Angelico intermittently for nearly twenty years, is represented by twenty-two paintings, drawings, and manuscript illuminations culled from every decade of his career. Some of these are new attributions as well; and several are executed in collaboration with other artists, including Fra Angelico himself. Two of the exceptionally rare works by the Master of the Sherman Predella are included, along with a curatorial conjecture for that artist's identification. Five paintings by Francesco Pesellino—perhaps the most influential artist active in Florence at mid-century—commemorate his stylistic debt to Angelico and his brief partnership with Zanobi Strozzi prior to his emergence as an independent master. Finally, the presence of Benozzo Gozzoli in Fra Angelico's shop is investigated through collaborative works and a selection of paintings from his later career, illustrating the continuity of this tradition nearly to the end of the fifteenth century.