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

Bulletin 14, 1969

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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Click figure 12 here for an enlarged image

Click figure 13 here for an enlarged image

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

by R. Ward Bissell

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

An investigation of the Lot and His Daughters in the National Gallery of Canada raises one further problem. Before the paintings in the Orléans collection were dispersed in the late eighteenth century, engraved versions of them were produced. A drawing by Borel of the Lot and His Daughters, then attributed to Velasquez, served as the basis for Philippe Trière's print (fig. 13). (16) Clearly the engraving, with the broadleafed plant in the corner, the different rock formation and the burning hilltown, does not reproduce exactly the known painting. Since there can be no doubt as to the history of the Ottawa canvas (even the size of the painting corresponds to the measurements indicated below the engraving), an explanation of this discrepancy must be sought. It is doubtful, given the function of the print, that the draftsman or engraver intentionally altered or manufactured details. Rather, I believe that the engraving was produced after a painting of small format in order to facilitate copying. One such reduced version on wood, said to copy the picture in the Orléans collection, appeared in the Le Brun sale, Paris, in 1791, and may have been purchased by Pamard of Avignon (Appendix II, 3 and 4). Another panel painting, twice the size of the Le Brun example but identical in form to the engraving, is said to have been presented by Pope Clement XIV to the 9th Earl of Exeter in 1774 and still hangs in Burghley House at Stamford (fig. 10; Appendix I, 3)

That the tiny panel in Paris was an original replica by Gentileschi, who is known to have worked in small scale, is indeterminable, though doubtful. The version belonging to the Marquess of Exeter is of high quality. The polished, less painterly surface results, in part at least, from the medium employed. Nonetheless, certain weaknesses challenge its authenticity. The head of the younger daughter is poorly drawn; the ruddy flesh tones as well as the blue-green of Lot's coat and the green of the trees in the middle distance are overly assertive; and while the fantasy-like town is well painted, for all of its unreasonable demands upon the viewer's attention, the remainder of the landscape is very schematic. But whether by a skilled copyist, as I believe it may be, or by Orazio himself, the picture at Burghley House is probably based upon a now lost original by Gentileschi. It does not reproduce the Lot and His Daughters at Ottawa; to the changes previously noted can be added the observation that the colours of the older daughter's skirt (golden yellow) and of her sister's blouse (steel-gray) are not those of the known example.

Orazio Gentileschi's practice of repeating with variations his own compositions intensified as his career progressed. So too did his penchant for rarefied effects, stimulated, no doubt, by the aristocratic and royal patrons for whom he worked. The Lot and His Daughters of about 1628 in the Museo de Bellas Artes at Bilbao, painted undoubtedly for Charles I of England and engraved by Lucas Vorstermann, is a case in point (figs. II and 12; Appendices 1,4 and II, 5 and 6). The accent is now upon courtliness, from the graceful postures of the slender daughters with their small heads to the affected gestures. This is Gentileschi' s grand manner, and superb technical refinement becomes virtually an end in itself. The rocks behind, with fussy grape vines and ivy hanging from them, are no longer so closely related to the figures. In reversing the position of Lot so that the composition might build upward in stages toward the standing figure, Orazio shifted the dramatic focus. The observer's eye quickly sweeps past Lot, a movement reinforced by the tendency to "read" a painting from left to right. (17) As if to compensate for this disequilibrium, Gentileschi turned back inward the glance of the standing daughter and parallelled her outstretched arm to the oblique posture of the other daughter, the metal jug serving as an intermediate diagonal. And, as if to compensate for the attenuated force of the total presentation, Gentileschi introduced such ostensibly titillating details as the partially exposed breasts of the women and the indelicate position of the right hand of Lot, who himself is a less wizened type (as the daughters in turn are more mature). In all, the Lot and His Daughters at Bilbao lacks the powerful concentration of the earlier examples. It strangely evokes memories of that mannered elegance against which Caravaggio and then his followers, Orazio included, had reacted.

Had Orazio Gentilcschi declined Sauli's invitation, this picture would never have been painted. His skill as an artist and some judiciously executed schemes led him from Genoa to Turin (perhaps), to Paris, and ultimately to the court at London. The Lot and His Daughters in the National Gallery of Canada was produced precisely in that period when Gentileschi began to achieve an international reputation. Yet it is fair to say that the most vital years for his art were those which he spent on or near Via Margutta in the artists' quarter of Rome. Exactly how Orazio's art might have evolved had he remained in Italy is problematic. It is worth noting, however, that certain of his works at Fabriano seem, in retrospect, to contain already the essential features of his late style. Moreover, a comparison of the pensive Lot and His Daughters of 1628 to, for example, Pietro da Cortona's dramatic Rape of the Sabines of approximately the same year demonstrates as graphically as possible both the astounding diversity of Italian baroque painting and some of the unique gifts of Orazio Gentileschi.

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