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Giuseppe Maria

Italia • 1665−1747

Giuseppe Maria Crespi was an Italian painter of the late Baroque era. He studied in Bologna. He learned painting by Correggio, Barrocci, Guercino, Mazzoni, etchings by Rembrandt. He worked in Bologna, Venice, Modena, Florence and other Italian cities. The scenes of Giuseppe Maria Crespi are not descriptive, like those of the Dutch painters, they do not have the grotesque of the French engraver; the painter was interested in the general coloristic sonority of the costumes, the specificity in painting individual foreground figures against the background of a somewhat blurred ground.

He studied under Canuti, Cignani, Burrini in Bologna. He worked in Bologna, Venice, Parma, Modena, Pistoia, Florence (1700—1708). He studied painting by Correggio, Barrocci, Guercino, Mazzoni, and etchings by Rembrandt.

In 1689, Crespi entered the School of Drawing in Bologna, from which he was expelled for his caricature of Count Malvasia, the trustee of the Bologna Academy. In the altar images, which he executed before 1700, he followed the classical Bologna tradition of the 17th century (The Crucifixion of the Ten Thousand. Martyrs, Bologna, Santo Spirito). However, in his frescoes of the plafond of the Bologna Palazzo Pepoli (1691—1692) on the theme of the Seasons, he departed from the sublime idealized subject interpretation in the Bolognese manner. The characters of the traditional baroque allegory are interpreted with vivid authenticity, sometimes with grotesque. The gathering of Olympus gods looks close to the earthly scenes of folk festivals. His early paintings “The Centaur Chiron Teaches the Young Achilles Archery”, “Aeneas, the Sibyl and Charon” (c. 1700, both Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) deviated from the lofty interpretation of the myth practised by the Bolognese. In terms of their chosen subjects and their interpretation, the Crespi’s bacchanalia, such as Cupids Disarming Sleeping Nymphs (c. 1705, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.); Cupids Disarming Sleeping Nymphs (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts) are anti-academic. Antique idylls with nymphs and cupids having fun in the open nature resemble scenes of folk festivities.

In the early 1700s, Crespi moved from mythological scenes to depicting scenes from peasant life, interpreting them first as pastoral (Everyday Scene, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg), and then giving them an increasingly convincing character of genre painting (Mother and Child, Berlin, State Museum; The Washerwoman, Woman Looking for Fleas, both in the Hermitage Museum). New for the artist, the caravaggist technique of harsh illumination of the dark interior space from the inside gives the figures a plastic clarity, enhances the sense of sincere depiction of the observed reality (Scene in the Cellar, The State Hermitage Museum; Peasant Family, Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts).

The highest achievement of 18th century genre painting was Crespi’s The Fair at Poggio a Caiano (c. 1708, Florence, Uffizi), Village Fair (c. 1709, Hermitage) depicting crowded folk scenes. They showed the artist’s interest in the graphics of Callot, knowledge of the 17th century Dutch painters who worked in the bambociatta genre. Crespi’s canvases were created during his work in Florence, at the court of Ferdinando I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, whose collection contained many works by Dutch painters. Crespi’s scenes are not descriptive, like those of the Dutch, they do not have the grotesque of a French engraver, the painter is interested in the general coloristic sonority of the costumes, the specificity in painting individual foreground figures against the background of a somewhat blurred ground. His attention is focused on the transmission of light and shadow, as in the works of Magnasco whom Crespi highly appreciated. In those canvases, Crespi also sought a thorough observation of events, but less than Magnasco, allowing himself to introduce the elements of fantasy into real events.

From 1700 to 1720s, the artist painted religious pictures, portraits, still lifes, everyday scenes. In the Massacre of Babies (1706, Florence, Uffizi), he turned to the pictorial tradition of Guercino, used his lighting effects and seemingly contrastes his individual style with the sentimental academic interpretation of historical and religious scenes, which was fashionable in the first half of the 18th century. The active movements of the subjects are conveyed with a somewhat exaggerated baroque expression. Shrouded in shadow, restless figures are illuminated by a mysterious greenish light, as if flashing in the depth of the background and spreading silvery reflections throughout the canvas. Later, in his religious and mythological works, instead of baroque eccentricity, great severity and persuasiveness appeared to bring the events closer to the reality (The Holy Family, Moscow, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts; The Death of Joseph, The Hermitage; St John of Nepomuk Hearing the Confession of the Queen of Bohemia, Torino Galleria Sabauda).

The most significant work of the mature artist was the Seven Sacraments series (Dresden, Picture Gallery). Only one of the seven canvases of the cycle (Confession) is dated 1712, which suggests that all of them were executed approximately during this period. The Crespi’s cycle is one of the highest achievements of 18th century Baroque painting. And at the same time, this is a completely new art, which marked the end of the baroque tradition, violated its methods for the abstract interpretation of religious scenes. All seven canvases (Confession, Baptism, Matrimony, Communion, Ordination, Confirmation, Extreme Unction) are painted in the warm reddish-brown tone of Rembrandt. The technique of harsh lighting brings a certain emotional note to the depiction of each sacrament. This gives all the scenes a shade of mysterious intimacy of the event, at the same time, it emphasizes the main thing in the artist’s intention, who is trying to tell about the reality of life in these scenes of the main stages of the brief earthly human existence.

The influence of Rembrandt’s style, his interest in a deep psychological interpretation of people’s images was manifested in Crespi’s portraits. Like the Dutch master, he also often created self-portraits (1708, Florence, Uffizi; circa 1710, Bologna, National Pinacoteca; circa 1710, Hermitage; 1710, Milan, Brera), studying the distribution of light and shadow on the face, emphasizing its plastic expressiveness and accentuating the changeable inner spiritual life. Subtle emotionality and the elements of the genre painting are always harmonised in his type portraits (The Hunter, Bologna, National Pinakothek; Woman Playing a Lute, 1720s, Paris, private collection). Grotesque intonations, as a challenge to the ceremonial baroque portrait, dominate in his paintings, such as General Paldi (Dresden Picture Gallery), La famiglia di Zanobi Troni (Bologna, National Pinakothek).

The high artistic skill of the artist of the Bologna school manifested itself in Crespi’s still lifes. In his still life Two Libraries (1720s, Bologna, City Museum of Bibliography), with the trompe l’oeil technique already known back in the 17th century, volumes of a treatise on music theory and score, illuminated with cold even light, give rise to images of genuine authenticity and materiality. The traditions of Crespi’s full and bold creative search, sincere art were developed in the Italian art of the 18—19th centuries, when Italy moved towards verism. Many aspects of his anti-academic manner were perceived by Piazzetta, Longhi, Benefial, Ghezzi and other Italian artists. As a bright and original master, Crespi was only discovered in the 20th century. Before that, he had been considered one of the imitators of the Carracci brothers.

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