Canadian Ensemble of the Italian Baroque

Ciro Ferri, Joseph Turning Away from Potiphar’s Wife (c. 1675), oil on canvas, 75.6 x 104 cm. Agnes Etherington Art Center, Queen’s University, Kingston, Gift of Alfred & Isabel Bader

Shining a spotlight on twelve Italian Baroque masterpieces from prominent Canadian art institutions, the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH) has put together an ensemble cast of outstanding artists revered as much for their theatricality as their technique.

Illuminations: Italian Baroque Masterworks in Canadian Collections was co-curated by Benedict Leca, formerly of the AGH and now Executive Director at Rhode Island’s Redwood Library and Athenaeum, and guest curator Devin Therien. Through key pieces from Canadian collections,Illuminations showcases the richness of the Baroque in Italy, and its influence on the art of other countries.

The seventeenth century was a turbulent time across Europe. It was the century of the Sun King, the Thirty Years War, the English Civil War, and the Dutch Golden Age. It also ushered in the Scientific Revolution, and even the birth of opera, and is often equated with the debut of the Early Modern Age.

The high drama of the Baroque in art seems a perfect fit for such a period. Men and gods vie for canvas space, and subject matter from gambling to divine intervention is given extra import through theatrical lighting and bold compositions. In a wide range of works from some of the period’s most important artists, Illuminations explores what can only be described as a new way of seeing, and a new way of interpreting stories old and new.

Simon Vouet, The Fortune-teller (c. 1620), oil on canvas, 120 x 170 cm. National Gallery of Canada

Some of the most important artists of the Italian Baroque are represented in the exhibition, including Lanzani, Giordano, Ribera and Poussin who, although French, spent most of his working life in Rome. Also included is Simon Vouet’s masterwork, The Fortune-teller, from the National Gallery of Canada collection. Although French as well, Vouet also spent a great deal of time in Rome, and is widely credited with introducing the tenets of Italian Baroque painting to France. As Therien notes in an interview with NGC Magazine, “These are the sorts of paintings you find in introductory art history textbooks.”

The Baroque period in Italy — as in many other European nations — saw the emergence of a growing middle class, and a growing division between Church and State. In addition to paintings with religious subject matter, wealthy patrons began to commission works based on mythology and history. “It’s when you have the beginnings of paintings produced for private collectors that you see such diversity, because they did not feel restricted to church imagery,” says Therien.

Luca Giordano, The Massacre of the Children of Niobe (c. 1685), oil on canvas, 175 x 259 cm. The Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Collection, 2002

One of the most striking works in the exhibition is Luca Giordano’s The Massacre of the Children of Niobe (c. 1685). Illustrating Homer’s recounting of the mythological story of Niobe, who bragged that she had more children than the goddess Leto, the painting plays with two big themes that resonated throughout the Baroque period: idealism and realism. The painting juxtaposes a rather gritty depiction of the earthbound mother trying to shield her children from the idealized figures of gods Artemis and Apollo.

As the National Gallery exhibition Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome demonstrated a few years ago, the Baroque also ushered in new compositional structures, and a play of light and shade that heightened the drama of even the most mundane scene. These same effects are on glorious display in Illuminations. Speaking of both the period and the works on display, Therien remarks that, “There is a focus on how mixing raw materials and techniques could produce an entirely new type of art that would touch and dazzle and surprise. We see newly expressed levels of emotions such as piety, anger, astonishment, and suffering.”

In Mattia Preti’s St. Paul the Hermit (c. 1656–1660) for example, the central life-sized figure reels back, shocked by the sudden appearance of a raven bringing him bread. Illuminated in a shaft of white light, he stands out dramatically against a sombre backdrop that includes a crucified figure and a tiny monk (likely St. Jerome) peering out from the edge of the painting.

Mattia Preti, St. Paul the Hermit (c. 1656-60), oil on canvas, 233.7 x 181 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario, Frank P. Wood Endowment

“This dramatic use of light was really Caravaggio’s innovation: illuminating large, solid, three-dimensional figures in a dramatic way against backdrops that are not clearly defined,” says Therien. “It really made the figures jump forward to engage the spectator.”

Innovations like Caravaggio’s set the European art world aflame during the seventeenth century. From Rome, which was the centre of the western art world at the time, the high drama of the Italian Baroque spread to other parts of Europe. Painters began flocking to Rome to study and work, often bringing back such made-in-Italy techniques as heightened chiaroscuro and bravura scenes featuring large central figures in dramatic poses.

This is not to say that the Baroque features nothing but gods, satyrs, nymphs and saints. The artists of seventeenth-century Rome gave similar artistic treatment to gambling scenes and street fairs, lending everything from the exalted to the mundane a new sense of drama, immediacy and import.

Art is a mirror of the prevailing zeitgeist, reflecting the political, scientific and socio-cultural realities in which it is born. By drawing upon some of the most stunning Baroque works in Canadian collections, Illuminations sheds light, both figurative and literal, on one of Western art’s great turning points, and hints at the modern world lying just over the horizon.

Illuminations: Italian Baroque Masterworks in Canadian Collections is on view at the Art Gallery of Hamilton until May 31, and at the Art Gallery of Alberta from June 27 through October 5.

With files from NGC Magazine staff.


About the Author

Alexia Naidoo

Alexia Naidoo is an Ottawa-based freelance journalist specializing in hi-tech, politics and the arts.

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