Ercole de’ Roberti spent the latter half of his career at the court of Ercole I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, painting altarpieces, small devotional works, portraits, and fresco cycles for the Este residences, as well as decorative projects. Ercole de’ Roberti’s panel is one of three scenes of virtuous women that were likely painted for the duchess of Ferrara, Eleonora of Aragon. Depictions of female worthies who exemplified virtues such as chastity, fidelity, and patriotism were inspired by the writings of ancient authors, such as Valerius Maximus, and Renaissance texts, especially Boccaccio’s On Famous Women (1361–75). Portia, the wife of Marcus Junius Brutus, demonstrates her bravery and fortitude by wounding her foot with a razor the evening before the attempt to assassinate Julius Caesar. She explained that the wound was self-inflicted to confirm that she would be ready to endure death should the plan not succeed. Eleonora may have installed Ercole’s exquisitely painted works in her own suite of rooms in the Castello Vecchio of Ferrara, refurbished about 1490.
Adult: Portia and Brutus
Adult: Portia and Brutus, The Portia Panel
Ercole de' Roberti was an artist trained in the egg tempera technique, who responded to the new challenge of painting using an oil medium. In his highly individualistic manner, he combined the linear precision characteristic of tempera with the jewel-like luminosity of oil glazes. In this work, Ercole juxtaposes the delicate modeling of the fleshtones, achieved with tiny hatched strokes in egg tempera, with the thick transparent glaze of the green backdrop. Portia and Brutus was carefully planned and executed. Ercole, who was a highly skilled draftsman, appears to have based the composition on a preliminary drawing. He transferred the outlines of the figures to his panel before indicating the shadows with hatched lines of underdrawing. This process accounts for the varied types of underdrawing visible with an infrared camera.
Probably painted for Eleonora of Aragon, duchess of Ferrara [1450-1493].
John Hope Barton [1833-1876], Stapleton Park, Yorkshire, England, by 1868, as “Vanity Rebuked,” by an unknown artist.
Sir Herbert Frederick Cook, 3rd baronet [1868-1939], Doughty House, Richmond, Surrey, England, 1920;
by descent to his eldest son, Sir Francis Ferdinand Maurice Cook, 4th baronet [1907-1978], Doughty House, Richmond, Surrey;
by descent to his widow, Dowager Lady Bridget Brenda Cook, St. Aubin, Jersey, England;
purchased through (Sommerville & Simpson Ltd., London) by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1986.