Giovanni Battista Moroni, Portrait of a Woman (ca. 1575). Collection of the Frick Collection. Photo by Joseph Coscia Jr.

The Frick Acquires Its First Renaissance Portrait of a Woman

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By  Sarah Cascone

NEW YORK (Artnet) — The walls of the Frick Collection’s stately Gilded Age mansion in New York are lined with distinguished Old Master portraits, many depicting the kings, knights, and patrons of the Italian Renaissance. Now, the museum has made an intriguing new addition by acquiring its first painted portrait of a woman from the period.

Titled “Portrait of a Woman” (ca. 1575), the depiction of an auburn-haired lady is the work of Giovanni Battista Moroni. The estate of Assadour O. Tavitian, a longtime board member who died in 2020, donated the work to the museum following its appearance in the 2019 exhibition “Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture.” It is also the first work by the artist to join the Frick’s collection.

Tavitian was a philanthropist known in the Berkshires for his generosity and commitment to several local organizations. Considered a patriot by the Armenian Church for his contributions to Armenia, he had lived in Stockbridge since the mid-1990s, according to Bob Jones, of Lee, who served as the caretaker of Tavitian’s property on Prospect Hill Road for 18 years. He also owned a townhouse in New York City that housed a large art collection.

Tavitian, the co-founder of SyncSort, one of the first software development companies to emerge after IBM unbounded its software, served on the boards of the former Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge and The Clark Art Museum in Williamstown.

In 1995, he established the Tavitian Foundation, which provides scholarships to students of Armenian and Bulgarian origin and sponsors projects that focus on the development of the Republic of Armenia. Through his foundation, he established the Tavitian Fellows Program at the Fletcher School. That program provides a six-month training program in public policy and administration for Armenian government officials, and it has over 350 alumni.

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“He sponsored students throughout his life in a variety of areas,” said Kate Maguire, CEO and artistic director of the Berkshire Theatre Group, which includes the former Berkshire Theatre Festival. “He was always very generous in terms of his support. And his support was thorough. He got to know whoever he was sponsoring and mentored them through their life.”

“A very generous guy,” said Jones, who also served as the facilities manager for the Berkshire Theatre Festival. “He had a great sense of humor and was the smartest guy I’ve ever known. He’s going to be sorely missed.”

Tavitian was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1940, to parents who had survived the 1915 Armenian Genocide in Turkey. After living in Beirut for two years, he immigrated to New York in 1961 as a Cold War refugee and received a scholarship that same year to Columbia University. After earning a master’s degree in nuclear engineering, Tavitian in 1975 co-founded SyncSort, a company that played a major role in the development of the software industry.

Assadour “Aso” Tavitian

Tavitian served as SyncSort’s CEO from 1975 to April 2008, when the company was recapitalized by Insight Venture Partners. According to Jones, Tavitian lived in Greenwich, Conn., before moving to Stockbridge, where he resided next door to the late Berkshire benefactors John and Jane Fitzpatrick, who restored the Red Lion Inn in the late 1960s.

After the Fitzpatricks died, Tavitian bought their property on Prospect Hill Road in 2014, restored it and moved his foundation there, according to  Jones.

“We are deeply saddened by the sudden demise of Aso Tavitian – great philanthropist, humanist, patriot and beloved friend of the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzian and the Armenia people,” His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of all Armenians, told Public Radio of Armenia at the time. “His death is a great loss for the Holy Church and the whole nation.” Mr. Tavitian’s efforts have been recognized by the government of Armenia through the awarding of the Order of Honor on October 7, 2017 as well as the Prime Minister’s Medal in 2012.

“We had the pleasure of getting to know this compelling portrait very well in 2019,” museum director Ian Wardropper said in a statement. “At that time, the portrait was considered one of the finest by Moroni in private hands. We are thrilled to now include it in our permanent collection.”

“We have two Titians, we have a Tintoretto, we have a Bronzino — and they’re all of men,” museum curator Aimee Ng, who co-organized the Moroni show, told the New York Times. “So it’s a very big deal.”

The identity of the painting’s sitter has been lost to time, but based on her ornate garb, with its frilled collar and silver brocade, she appears to have been an aristocrat.

It is something of an usual work for the period, not bearing the hallmarks of a traditional female portrait painted for a betrothal, engagement, or a new home. The woman also has a powerful gaze, unflinching and bold in a way not often seen in Renaissance portrayals of women.

It is one of only 15 portraits that the artist did of a woman sitting on her own, out of about 125 extant works in the genre.

“A triumph painted at the height of the artist’s career, its superb quality and condition are perfectly at home among the treasures of the Frick,” Ng said in a statement.

The Frick is currently closed for an ambitious expansion project, so the painting will go on view at the museum’s temporary location at the Breuer Building, the former home of the Whitney Museum of American Art. It will make its debut there on Thursday, January 12.

The Frick tends to be judicious in its acquisitions. The last year it added more than one work to its collection was in 2015, when it acquired nine pieces of porcelain and a Francis Cotes portrait. In 2021, Alexis Gregory gave the gift of a James Cox musical automaton rhinoceros clock (ca. 1765-72), while in 2020, Kathleen Feldstein donated Salomon van Ruysdael’s Landscape with Farmhouse (ca. 1628).

In 2018, the museum’s biggest purchase in decades, a full-length portrait of Prince Camillo Borghese by French artist François Gérard, almost fell through after Italy attempted to rescind the work’s export permit.

(With additions by Christine Vartanian Datian, the Berkshire Eagle and the New York Times)

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