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DC Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

With 44 paintings on display until May 3, the National Gallery of Art is introducing Piero di Cosimo to the public.

“Piero has never had a major retrospective, ever in the United States or Italy, and he’s a painter that I’ve been interested in for many years," said Gretchen Hirschauer, curator of the exhibition.

Inspired by di Cosimo’s three works in the gallery’s permanent collection, Hirschauer decided it was time to organize an exhibition devoted entirely to his work. It took seven years of diligent effort and persistent dealings with museums and art collections in Europe and North America to bring the obscure Italian painter out of the shadows.

She is especially proud of a painting on loan from a museum in Florence, which has left its home for the first time since its creation. It depicts a so-called “mystic marriage," in which the Christ child gives a ring of betrothal to Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

Hirschauer said the exhibition offers a unique opportunity to discover the best-kept secret of the Renaissance. Despite his large body of work and the beauty of his paintings, Piero di Cosimo has remained unknown for most of the past five centuries.

“It was really his persona," she said. "His biographer, Giorgio Vassari, established his reputation in the 16th century as a very eccentric painter, a bizarre painter. He actually called him a wild man. So over the years, Piero has taken on that reputation, which maybe put some people off. Also the subject matter of his mythologies can be quite arcane. Sometimes it’s very difficult to figure out exactly what is the story being told here.”

For centuries, his body of work has baffled art scholars, who have found it hard to authenticate his paintings.

“It’s more the subject matter that is quite distinct," Hirschauer said. "I think it’s very unusual to see someone who is able to depict the serenity and grace of a Madonna and Child, while at the same time showing animals ripping each other apart, man killing animals. So it’s an issue of subject matter, I think.”

But in the 21st century, Piero di Cosimo's eccentricity, painting style and combination of mythologies with deeply religious subjects make the 16th-century artist a treat for visitors and scholars alike.