Portrait of the Week: How Does the Unknown Become Known?

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Orazio Gentileschi, “Head of a Woman,” oil on panel, 16 1/2 x 14 3/8 in. (c) Sotheby’s 2017

In this ongoing series, Fine Art Today delves into the world of portraiture, highlighting historical and contemporary examples of superb quality and skill. This week: “Head of a Woman” by a monumental painter from long ago. Did we mention it could also be yours?

For the right price, of course. Sotheby’s New York expects this week’s feature portrait to land in someone’s collection for a modest price of between $2 million and $3 million during its January 25 Master Paintings & Sculpture Evening Sale. Although most — if not all — of us may not be able to acquire Orazio Gentileschi’s (1563-1639) gorgeous “Head of a Woman,” we can still marvel at the mastery of this portrait.

Tightly cropped just below the neck and nearly square in format, the portrait presents us with the thoughtful gaze of an unknown female sitter. Immediately noticeable is Gentileschi’s fantastic use of color — the subtleties of gray-blue that flash over her skin, or the oranges and reds found within her flushed cheeks. With her shoulder bare, some have detected a certain degree of sexuality in the portrait, leaving to the viewer’s imagination what lies beneath the picture’s frame. The sitter’s head has been tilted in three-quarter view, but her gaze returns to the viewer, endowing the portrait with a brief sense of life and movement. Although we may never know her identity, her presence and vitality have been captured with incredible sensitivity — forever immortalized through brush, canvas, and paint.

To learn more, visit Sotheby’s.

This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.


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Andrew Webster is the former Editor of Fine Art Today and worked as an editorial and creative marketing assistant for Streamline Publishing. Andrew graduated from The University of North Carolina at Asheville with a B.A. in Art History and Ceramics. He then moved on to the University of Oregon, where he completed an M.A. in Art History. Studying under scholar Kathleen Nicholson, he completed a thesis project that investigated the peculiar practice of embedded self-portraiture within Christian imagery during the 15th and early 16th centuries in Italy.

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