Old Master Paintings

Coming Face to Face with Botticelli

By Erik Madigan Heck
Contemporary artist Erik Madigan Heck – whose portraits of artists, celebrities and world leaders embody a painterly sensibility – recently had the rare opportunity to meet another legend in person – Botticelli. After a one-on-one encounter with a portrait by the 15th century Renaissance master, Heck shared his insights for The Eye of the Beholder, a new original video premiering on Monday, 25 January at 5pm EST at sothebys.com/theeyeofthebeholder. Here Heck gives a preview of his first impressions of the extraordinary painting.

T hroughout the history of art, few artists have articulated beauty as an ideal as dramatically as Sandro Botticelli.

In studying the Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel, the first place my eyes fixate on are his hands. I’ve always found hands and their complexities to be the “soup” of portraiture. A chef’s capabilities should always be judged upon their soup sensibilities – for a masterful soup remains unnoticed in order to quietly enhance the main dish. And here, Botticelli created a set of hands that are both smooth and seemingly three-dimensional in an otherworldly manner. The fingers are arranged and balanced in such a way that unknowingly guides our focus directly into the boy’s gaze. The main course.

Select works from Erik Madigan Heck's The Garden series, 2017–20.

The Goddess Myth, 2017

While his eyes never seems to leave us – like the all-encompassing stare of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa – there exists an empathy and softness here that isn’t found in da Vinci’s portrait. For me, the ability to convey this softness and honesty remains one of the most difficult tasks to depict in a portrait. The boy’s gaze is not dictatorial. Rather, he seduces you into believing that he has a child-like innocence built upon pure goodness – while simultaneously possessing the confidence and strength of a soon-to-be-adult. And therein lies the profoundness. It captures the un-aging of innocence – the Dorian Gray-like qualities of an idealized human. In doing so Botticelli creates a perfect portrait of the perfect person – an idealized self-portrait for us all to aspire to.

Yet, for me – Botticelli’s articulation of beauty as a universal ideal is best exemplified through his bold use of color arrangements. Since color is what we relate to first, his contrasting pale-blue background, haloing the boy’s yellowish skin-tones, allows for a sublime luminescence to radiate off the painting and into the viewer’s soul. It almost seems as if you are viewing the painting with 3D glasses. The more I stare at this portrait the more the yellows and blues become the entire composition – in a Rothko-like submission, where the form surrenders to color.

I believe a perfectly executed portrait doesn’t necessarily describe the sitter, but is instead a declaration and celebration of beauty. And Botticelli was clearly the master of this – manicuring both his people and landscapes into idealized worlds that we could only hope to live inside.


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