Lady revealing her Breast1580 - 1590. Oil on canvas, 62 x 55.6 cm.
This depiction of an honest courtesan, presents an iconography of increasing interest to art historians in recent decades. With her curly blond hair, bare forehead and pearl necklace, as well as the breast she so generously offers the viewer, the model recalls a young woman whose mother sought to introduce her into the business of high-level prostitution, as described by Veronica Franco (1546-1591), in Lettere familiari a divesi (Venice 1580). In fact, it has been suggested that the woman depicted here is Veronica Franco herself. The most celebrated Venetian courtesan of the second half of the 16th century, she possessed a beauty that was matched by her considerable culture and a notable literary talent evidenced by her poetic works -Terze rime (1575)- and prose- the previously mentioned Lettere. During her lifetime, Franco was famed for her beauty, her literary gifts and her participation in the culminating moment in the history of Renaissance courtesans: her relations with Henry III of France during his brief sojourn in Venice in 1574. She is known to have been portrayed by Domenico Tintoretto’s father, Jacopo, and her knowledge of art allowed her to participate in debates on the merits of ancient and modern artists. These quarrels were quite renowned in Venetian art circles at that time. There are no confirmed portraits of Veronica Franco, with the exception of the engraved frontispiece for her Terze rime, but the so-called Portrait of Veronica Franco at the Worcester Art Museum is generally accepted, and its similarity to the present work is evident. While the painter drew on a model, the work maintains the stereotypes for such images, generically known as Venetians in 16th and 17th-century inventories.
Whether it depicts Veronica Franco or not, this work is also interesting for its pose. Unlike other images of courtesans, who generally look directly at the viewer, this model avoids eye contact while unabashedly baring her bosom. The artist proposes a subtly erotic game that is more suggestive than exhibitionist. The frontal presentation of the young woman’s breast is countered by a facial profile that hides her identity from the viewer, imbuing the work with an air of mystery that increases its sensuality.
While this work has long been the subject of interest due to its singular presentation of the female nude, there are indications that such representations of courtesans with the same characteristics were not really so exceptional. Mores Italiae, a catalog from 1575 with images of Venetian prostitutes, includes a Retratto dela Ragusana that shows a bare-breasted courtesan in profile, making it a close precedent to the Museo del Prado’s Lady.
Though long attributed to Jacopo Tintoretto, this work was actually painted by his son, Domenico, whose portraits lack the concentrated emotions of his father’s works, but make up for it in elegance and a taste for color and detail especially notable in his female likenesses.
This painting must have entered Spain’s Royal Collection of Spain between 1636 and 1666, along with several other portraits of Venetian women. Eight of these adorned the Galeria del Mediodía at Madrid’s Alcázar Palace in 1666, where they were attributed to Tintoretto (Text drawn from Falomir, M.: El Prado en el Ermitage, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2011, pp. 80-81).