Geneva, Michel Bertecco-Schaub collection; 1997, Lugano, private collection.
Oil on wood panel
22 7/16 x 19 1/4 in (57 x 48.8 cm)
This painting has obvious similarities to a work reproduced in a line-drawing by Salomon Reinach, attributed to Boltraffio and formerly with the London dealer Dowdeswell in about 1870, and then correctly ascribed to Catena by Tancred Borenius when it was in the collection of Charles Newton-Robinson in London. Many years later, Giles Robertson recorded it as having been in the Viennese collection of Olga Gussmann, wife of the writer Arthur Schnitzler.
In fact, our painting is quite distinct from this last work, not only because of the different position of the right hand, the drapery folds and the colour of the mantle (a brighter, more changeant dirty green), but also for the proportions of the image, set within a taller, narrower structure (the Schnitzler panel measures 58.4 x 45.1 cm), whereas ours is very slightly shorter, and wider (57 x 48.8 cm). Infrared reflectography has revealed that the support is a repurposed panel which originally bore a figure of Saint Sebastian, from the right-hand section of a Sacra conversazione. The original wood panel, in very good condition, was then thinned down, remounted onto another panel, and finally cradled so as to impede any undesired movement of the wood.
The subject is mysterious and anomalous, and to some extent undefinable: the title Portrait of a Lady is a makeshift solution, as we await the deciphering of the underlying idea. What can be said with certainty is that it derives from the figure on the right in an equally mysterious painting in the Detroit Institute of Arts (inv. 26.107), with two female figures facing one another, and in the middle ground behind them, a man in half-shadow. Crowe and Cavalcaselle assigned it to Giovanni Cariani, and W. R. Valentiner, giving credence to the inscription on the back of the canvas, now covered by its lining, recognised it as the work of three different hands. Art historians have been divided between those who supported this idea entirely, led by F. J. Mather, Jr., who believed it was a seventeenth-century forgery, and those who put forward yet other names, but always based on the notion of a single author, such as Palma Vecchio or Pordenone. We should however underline that close observation of the Detroit picture very clearly reveals the radical difference in handling between each of the three areas, and the fact that it cannot be a seventeenth-century fake, because of the dozens of copies that exist of it, of which at least one, in the Berlin, is sixteenth-century in appearance.
For those who accept the three authors theory, the figure on the right has been unanimously recognised as by Sebastiano del Piombo, while the woman on the left would be by Titian and the male figure between them by Giorgione. This would therefore mean that the panel studied here is a copy of a painting by Sebastiano del Piombo; and it would be right to ask ourselves whether this is likely, with regard to a picture that must soon have become largely inaccessible, given the vagaries of private collecting. The answer is yes: we know for certain that Vincenzo Catena was a personal friend of Sebastiano Luciani, and indeed on 11 August 1528 he was a witness at the wedding of Adriana Luciani, the artist’s sister; and maybe this friendship, as Robertson already supposed, began early, in the circle of Giorgione. We should also remember that the inscription on the back of the panel of the so-called Laura by Giorgione in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, reads “1506 adj primo zugno fo fatto questo de mano de maistro Zorzi da chastel fr… / cholega de maistro vinzenzo chaena ad in stantia de mis. Giacmo”. By this time Sebastiano would surely have been in contact with Giorgione, who was probably a business partner of Catena, but we should not forget the latter’s likely rapport with Titian, attested to by evident affinities of style. In short, the three artists of the Detroit picture shared not only friendship but professional links, so that their paintings could have been easily accessible to our artist.
Catena’s authorship has thus far been secure, in connection with its resemblance to the Schnitzler painting. As Robertson had rightly pointed out, even with very limited points of comparison, the latter resembles the profile of the Angel in the Annunciation in the Museo Civico in Carpi, and that of the Virtue on the extreme left of Christ Consigning the Keys to Saint Peter in the Prado, or of its second version in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. However, the panel before us is higher in quality, not only for a greater softness of modelling but also for its slight recession in space, which makes the figure less constricted with respect to the foreground. It is as if that residual monumentality – still perceptible in the Schnitzler painting – had now completely mellowed. This was something associated with the early oeuvre of Sebastiano del Piombo, when he had established himself as the only painter in Venice capable of “far grande”, of lending a grand, heroic dimension to all his figures. This early phase, with large-scale figures in the immediate foreground, precedes Catena’s later idiom, with its greater serenity and more balanced sense of composition, in which he seems finally to steer his own recognisable path within the realms of Giorgione, Titian, and maybe even Palma; if one shares Robertson’s thesis in dating the Schnitzler painting to about 1515, it follows that our panel was carried out several years later, around 1520, the period of the Saint Christina Altarpiece in Santa Maria Materdomini in Venice, which marks the only secure point in the artist’s chronology. Significantly, the peculiar green tonality of the mantle worn by our lady closely resembles that of the two young Angels in that work.
The remarkable quality of this painting puts it among Vincenzo Catena’s finest works, at the beginning of the period in which he was receiving the highest public recognition. Given our current state of knowledge it may be difficult to appreciate, but this is attested to in a letter written in Rome by Marcantonio Michiel on 11 April 1520, in which, having announced the death of Raphael, and the illness of Michelangelo, he jokingly urges that the artist should take care of himself, “since this only happens to excellent painters” – as if to say that sudden death was the prerogative of only the greatest artists.
 S. Reinach, Répertoire des Peintures du Moyen Âge et de la Renaissance, III, Paris 1910, p. 137, no. 3.
 J.A. Crowe & G.B. Cavalcaselle, A History of Painting in North Italy, ed. by T. Borenius, London 1912, I, p. 262.
 G. Robertson, Vincenzo Catena, Edinburgh 1954, p. 52, cat. 24.
 M. Lucco, “Triplo ritratto”, in Sebastiano del Piombo. 1485-1547, exhibition catalogue (Rome), Milan 2008, pp. 110-111.
 J.A. Crowe & G.B. Cavalcaselle, A History of Painting in North Italy, London 1871, II, p. 553.
 W.R. Valentiner, “A combined work by Titian, Giorgione and Sebastiano del Piombo”, Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1926, pp. 62-65. The inscription on the back was read as “Fra Bastian del Piombo – Giorzon – Titian”.
 F.J. Mather, Jr., “An Enigmatic Venetian Picture at Detroit”, The Art Bulletin IX, 1927, p. 73.
 For a complete review of these opinions, see the entry in Sebastiano del Piombo…cit., p. 110.
 Gemäldegalerie Berlin. Gesamtverzeichnis, Berlin 1996, pp. 125, 507, cat. no. 306.
 G. Ludwig, “Neue Funde im Staatsarchiv zu Venedig”, Jahrbuch der Königlich Preussischen Kunstsammlungen, vol. XXIV, 1903, p. 112.
 Robertson, op. cit., p. 10.
 The inscription was discovered by H. Dollmayr, Catalogue du Louvre, Paris 1882, p. 1.
 Robertson, op. cit., p. 52.
 Robertson, op. cit., p. 52.
 The altarpiece is neither signed nor dated, but the base of its stone bears the words “MD – ANG. PHILOMATI. PLEB. ET FRATR. IMPEN. – XX”. Bearing in mind that the frame was ready for use in 1520, it is nothing more than common sense to concur with Robertson’s proposal (op. cit., pp. 59-60) that the painting was executed in that year, or immediately thereafter.
 M. Sanudo, I Diarii, Venice 1879-1903, vol. XXVI, p. 274: “dite adunque al nostro Catena che se guardi, poiché el tocca alli excellenti pittori” (“tell our Catena that he’d better look after himself, because this only happens to excellent painters”).