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

Bulletin 14, 1969

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Click figure 8 here for an enlarged image

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

by R. Ward Bissell

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

Consideration of the style of the Lot and His Daughters in Canada must, of course, be brought to bear upon an evaluation of the foregoing arguments as to the history and hence the date of the painting. As will be shown, the canvas is distinctly earlier in style than the final version of the subject which Orazio painted about 1628 for Charles I of England (fig. II). A synthesis of the material available yields, it seems to me, the approximate dates of 1622 to 1624, within the broadest possible limits of 1621 to 1626, as the period during which the work must have been executed. In date, therefore, as well as in manner, the picture at Ottawa belongs to a crucial phase in the career of Orazio Gentileschi.

Even the choice of subject is a clue to its relative date and to the character of the milieu within which it was conceived. Genesis, chapter 19 provided the theme: After the destruction of the sinful city of Sodom and the turning of Lot's wife into a pillar of salt for having defied the Lord's command, Lot and his two daughters escaped to a cave in the hills; the two girls, sincerely despairing for the perpetuation of the human race, conspired to have sexual relations with their father, having first stupified him with wine. In Orazio's interpretation the old man sleeps on the lap of his older daughter, who in turn points toward the distant land from which they have fled. Invariably, contemporary painters such as Theodoor (Dirck) van Baburen, whose spirited Lot and His Daughters (fig. 7) was painted at virtually the same time (signed and dated 1622), were enchanted by the possibility implicit in the story of representing a scene of drunken carousing, a kind of Biblical bacchanal, following in the tradition of low-life subjects which were particularly popular among the northern European caravaggeschi. (12) Certainly, physicality as such was not anathema to Gentileschi. The robust figures occupying much of the picture area project forward from the deep shadows of the cave, while rocks and foliage in the corners serve as transitions between the real world and the world of the painting. In addition, allusions to sexuality, even to its awkwardness under the circumstances, are present. Yet, characteristically, Orazio has eliminated the grosser, more extroverted aspects; the aggressiveness of Lot or the girls, so often emphasized by other artists, is excluded. In fact, this transformation of the usual type appears to have been inspired by representations of Samson and Delilah in which Samson sleeps on the lap of the seductress. (13) The ultimate proof of this is offered by Orazio's Lot and His Daughters at Bilbao (fig. II), where the daughter places her hand on her father's head. Far from being crude, Gentileschi's painting is sophisticated. Rather than appealing to the popular taste for bluntness, the canvas is consciously oriented toward the discerning connoisseur (the Duke of Savoy? Marie de' Medici?).

The sophistication of this painting depends greatly upon its organization. The three figures are contained within a large oval, the circumference of which is activated by the continual undulation of drapery and limbs. This easy movement, fully in keeping with the restrained interpretation, is established by broad curves interrupted here and there by more irregular rhythms, as on the extreme right where a sweeping line might otherwise have tended to direct the observer's eye out and away, and at the highest point of the figure grouping where the eye is induced to linger temporarily at the gesture. Further compactness is achieved through the repetition or visual linking of motifs within the enveloping oval-vertically with the arms and feet, horizontally with the lower arm of the older daughter and the leg of the other, as well as by means of the cascading drapery, the curve formed by the convergence of Lot's hand and his daughter's foot, and Lot's foot. As these and other linkings contribute to compositional unity, they are simultaneously expressive of the situation - the descent from the taut left arm of the older daughter to her bent right wrist to the limp hand of the insensible Lot; his sinking leg contrasted to the raised leg of the other daughter, a passage of intentional awkwardness.

Furthermore, the figures, so closely integrated with one another, are likewise intimately related to their surroundings. Three major masses of rock correspond to the figures, generally in terms of their number, and specifically in terms of their character. Thus one mass forms a protective overhang as it arches outward, following the posture and movement of the older daughter; another slopes slightly toward the left, echoing the position of the other girl; the third stretches out across the top of the painting to parallel the recumbent form of Lot below. A hole punched through the otherwise closed group augments both the three-dimensionality of the figure mass and the concavity of the space behind. And the spikes of a thicket which grows through a chink in the rocks are played against the supple feet.

But that which distinguishes above all the work of Orazio Gentileschi, and that quality for which his paintings are most highly prized, is the pictorial refinement; moreover, this quality is inseparable from the tranquil mood. The recent restoration of the Lot and His Daughters has revealed infinitely subtle shifts in colour and brushwork. The crimson of the older daughter's skirt, changing in the light to a rich maroon or rosé-wine red, and the yellows and golden tans of her sister's blouse enframe the blue of Lot's coat. The greens and browns of the grass cushion on which the figures rest and the browns of the cave are brought into rapport with the skillfully varied earth tones of the landscape. A glowing sunlit effect, enhanced by areas of white, results. The brushwork varies in spontaneity, as Gentileschi pays particular attention, as always, to the textural differentiation of complicatedly arranged materials.

The Lot and His Daughters at Ottawa contains, therefore, all the hallmarks of Orazio Gentileschi's mature style: the quiet mood; the compact, carefully balanced composition with the space screened off behind; the exquisite rendering of materials; the clear tonality with transparent shadows and subtle value changes; and the idealized figure types. These features bear comparison to the Annunciation which Orazio presented to the Duke of Savoy in 1623 (fig. 4; Turin, GaIleria Sabauda). It will be noted, however, that the physical types in the Lot and His Daughters are more robust and less elegant. In explanation of this I propose, first, that here, as throughout his Italian period, Gentileschi carefully adjusted his style with reference to what he considered to be appropriate to the subject - decorum, as it were, without the direct inspiration of classical art theory. Secondly, the physical fullness of the forms may owe something to the paintings of Anthony Van Dyck. Indeed, there are even undeniable compositional relationships between Van Dyck's Vertumnus and Pomona (fig. 8; Genoa, Palazzo Bianco) and Gentileschi's Lot and His Daughters. (14) Van Dyck also arrived in Genoa in 1621, and the two artists, whose friendship during the early 16305 is documented, may have met at that time. (15)

Next Page | National Gallery investigation

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

Top of this page

Home | Français | Introduction | History
Annual Index | Author & Subject | Credits | Contact

This digital collection was produced under contract to Canada's Digital Collections program, Industry Canada.

"Digital Collections Program, Copyright © National Gallery of Canada 2001"