Giovanni Battista Moroni – Portrait of a Man (‘The Tailor’) c. 1570, Canvas 97.8 x 74.9cm, London, National Gallery.Moroni is one of the most famous North Italian portrait specialists of the 16th century. He was a native of Albino, near Bergamo. In his early years he worked in Brescia and at Trent (1551-2). Later altarpieces and portraits were painted for clients in and around Bergamo and Albino, where he settled in 1561.
The portrait is a late work, probably around 1570, and the most famous of Moroni’s portraits; it was already celebrated in the 17th century, when it was in the Grimani collection in Venice.
The colourful costume of the tailor is contrasted with the black material marked with chalk lines that he prepares to cut. Most of the sitters in Moroni’s later portraits are dressed in black in the Spanish fashion that persisted into the following century. The tailor’s head, lit from above to the left, dominates the painting, the eyes, as in the majority of Moroni’s portraits, looking directly at the spectator with some type of appraisal as if there is a message to be conveyed. The gold ring on little finger hints at a glint – no other jewellery is seen – but this glint it would seem is powerful in the message it conveys – I have elegant taste.
This is an example of the late-Renaissance blend of reality and poetry but taken in a revolutionary new direction. No one had painted an ordinary artisan like this before. Jonathan Jones of the Guardian (2007) suggests that this painting is a tease, a game. Its purpose is to confuse categories of class and power, and the question of who has the right to be portrayed as a complex individual. He notes that it is not the fact that Moroni shows a tailor that’s exceptional, but the fact that he gives him the same nobility of pose and countenance as his aristocratic clients. The Tailor holds scissors in the same way Moroni’s nobles display swords. The fact that he is wearing a sword belt should not be taken literally – it may be a joke: the belt is empty, because the scissors are his sword. They look dangerous. He wears a red codpiece between his bulging pantaloons. I’m a tailor, he’s saying, but I’m a real man. There is steel in his eye, and a challenge.
This is a staggering beautiful and powerful painting. You want to meet this elegant artisan and you have a sense that the clothes he makes would be beautifully cut, with an understated elegance, crafted with skill and precision. A painting I would love to own.