National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 14, 1969

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Orazio Gentileschi and the 
Theme of "Lot and His Daughters"

by R. Ward Bissell

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8 

In February of 1621, Alessandro Ludovisi of Bologna ascended to the papacy as Gregory xv. The aspirations of Giovan Antonio Sauli, a Genoese nobleman who had come to Rome for the papal balloting, were thereby frustrated, since Antonio Maria Sauli, Archbishop of Genoa, had been a prime candidate. (1) For the professional career of the Roman baroque painter, Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), these events proved to be momentous. It could have been predicted that the election of Gregory xv would consolidate the position of the Bolognese masters, already enjoying important commissions in Rome at the expense of artists such as Gentileschi who worked within the tradition established by Caravaggio. But whether by design or not Orazio's immediate future suddenly acquired focus when Giovan Antonio Sauli, obviously impressed by the paintings of Gentileschi, invited him to Genoa. (2)

In a sense, Orazio's decision to leave Rome, to which he never returned, had been gradually forced upon him. A study of his career during the second decade of the century demonstrates that the occurrences of 1621 merely gave greater urgency to a departure which for several years had seemed imminent. (3) Gentileschi (his maternal surname) had come to Rome between 1576 and 1578 from his birthplace at Pisa, equipped with a rudimentary artistic education gleaned from his goldsmith father, Giovanni Battista Lomi, from the very early paintings of his brother Aurelio, and perhaps also from an occasional study trip to Florence. The canvases (formerly in San Paolo fuori le mura, and in Santa Maria at Farfa) and frescoes (in San Giovanni in Laterano and in Santa Maria Maggiore) which he executed during the 1590s, uninspired productions in the tradition of Roman late mannerism, only hint at an individual temperament. shortly after 1600, however, inspired by the art of Caravaggio, Gentileschi began to assert a recognizable artistic personality, as attested by the St Francis Supported by an Angel in the Palazzo Corsini, Rome (fig. I). Orazio's adaptation of Caravaggio's manner was considered; he seemed to perceive the indissoluble relationship between Caravaggio's style-direct painting from the model with attention to realistic detail, bold lighting comprehensive in function, restricted space - and his moral concem for the truth of human experience. By disposition and training Gentileschi also entertained a liking for exquisite decorative effects and a disinclination for forms in action. The Circumcision in the Chiesa del Gesù, Ancona, is a demonstration-piece for the former, while the David Slaring Goliath in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, and the superb St Michael Overcoming the Devil in San Salvatore, Farnese (fig. 2), for all their monumentality and dramatic lighting, are not totally convincing as violent encounters. By 1610, having explored these alternatives, Orazio chose to work toward increased refinement of sentiment and, consequently, of pictorial handling. To this phase, during which he emerged as the most original painter among the Roman caravaggeschi, belong such works as the Judith with Ber Maidservant in the Wadsworth Atheneum at Hartford, Connecticut (fig. 3) and the ceiling frescoes for the Casino of the Muses in the garden of the present Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi. Yet the scandal of 1612, involving his daughter Artemisia and Agostino Tassi, and, I suspect, the growing interest of patrons in the art of the Bolognese painters seem to have compelled Orazio to seek commissions outside of Rome. Beginning about 1613, he produced several important paintings for churches in Fabriano (Duomo, Santa Lucia, Santa Caterina, San Benedetto). Attempts to obtain work in Venice (in 1617) and at Pesaro (in 1619), during pauses in his activity for Fabriano, were, however, unsuccessful. (4)

Thus when Gentileschi was assured of employment by Sauli when the two men met in 1621, he was fully prepared, if not anxious, to leave Rome. For his new patron Orazio executed several paintings, including one of Lot and His Daughters, probably identifiable as the example which was still in Genoa at the beginning of this century (fig. 5; Appendices I, I and II, 1). (5) This picture, the first of four versions by Orazio Gentileschi of this theme, is known only in the photograph which is published here for the first time. It is very closely related to the canvas that has occasioned the present article, the Lot and His Daughters in the National Gallery of Canada (fig. 6; Appendix 1, 2).

Unfortunately, the early history of the painting now in Ottawa remains uncertain. It is first cited, without indication as to its provenance, in an inventory dated 1752 of the Orléans collection in France. Such an impasse is hardly acceptable to the art historian; thus two theories, neither of which is conclusive, have been offered. The principal arguments, which are discussed in detail in the Appendices (I, 2 and II, 2), can be summarized here. The first theory links the picture to the Lot and His Daughters which Gentileschi had previously sent from Genoa to Turin and to which he refers in a letter of April 1623. Apparently not content with the considerable patronage of Sauli and other Genoese aristocrats, Orazio sought employment in the court of Duke Carlo Emanuele I at Turin, offering works of art as bribes and accompanying them with the usual obsequious correspondence. (6) Since the whereabouts of the Lot for Turin (described as "Lot with his daughters near a rock, lying asleep on the knee of one of the daughters") becomes increasingly a mystery after its appearance in three seventeenth-century inventories, and since there were close relationships, through intermarriage, between the Orléans family and the House of Savoy, it has been maintained that the painting for Carlo Emanuele I and the canvas now under consideration are identical.

The second proposal, recently advanced by Charles Sterling, suggests that Gentileschi painted the Lot during his French period. (7) There is some indirect evidence to support this opinion, not the least of which is the presence of the picture in France by the mid-eighteenth century. Yet this thesis must be weighed against Da Morrona's assertion that Marie de' Medici invited Orazio to Paris after he had sent her a painting (unspecified, but conceivably a Lot and His Daughters) from northern Italy. (8) Gentileschi, accepting this invitation as well, arrived in Paris in 1624, perhaps in the fall of that year. Raffaello Soprani reported that Orazio worked two years for the Queen. (9) It is now known that the artist left for London in late September or early October of 1626. (10) Soprani's comment should be accorded serious attention, particularly in view of the amazing accuracy of his statement that Gentileschi was in England for twelve years and three months. (11)

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