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Object of the Month: August 2021

A Philosopher Holding a Book

Oil on canvas

Giambattista Tiepolo

Venetian, 1696–1770

One of the latest Italian painters represented in the Museum & Gallery Collection is the greatest artist of 18th-century Venice, Giambattista Tiepolo. While Tiepolo achieved most of his fame through breathtakingly airy frescoes on the ceilings of palaces, churches, and villas, he also revived age-old themes from the Bible and antiquity through fresh interpretations. Such is the case with a series of bust-length portraits of bearded old men, begun perhaps as early as the 1740s. These men in oriental garb are widely regarded as a series of ancient philosophers, but no definite case may be made for the group since most lack traditional attributes. Tiepolo was certainly influenced by Rembrandt’s paintings of bearded old men which may also be perceived as simple character studies.

The present painting is the original treatment by Tiepolo that together with others from the series was later copied by his artist sons, Domenico and Lorenzo, in etchings called La Raccolta de Teste (The Collection of Heads). The vigorous brushwork, vibrant colors, elaborate dress, and penetrating gaze of the sitter combine to make M&G’s Philosopher Holding a Book an excellent example of Tiepolo’s lesser-known skills at small-scale work. The etching to the left is made by Giovanni’s son as a copy of his father’s work. These smaller versions usually omit the hands, but the cloak clasp is included.

One of the virtues of art that John Keats extols in his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is the ability of art to ask questions of the viewer. Sometimes these questions are answerable; sometimes they aren’t. But the mystery is what draws viewers to return, allowing them to absorb more of the work as well as more of the mystery.

So, what is it that makes this seemingly straightforward portrait of a man with a book so interesting and intriguing?

  • Size: The work is small, unlike most of Tiepolo’s painting, which adorns ceilings and walls of various significant buildings in Venice and elsewhere. This focused work is part of no grand scheme or storyline. The work is part of a larger collection, also unusual for the artist. While artists often had studios of apprentices, Tiepolo’s own sons copied these works as etchings, collecting them into a published book—a practice which, presumably, expanded the audience of viewers and increased greater demand for similar works. This painting is called a portrait; yet, in one sense it is not, for the emphasis is not on the sitter. This man is not a historical figure who wishes to be known to posterity; he is merely an anonymous model given a role to play as a philosopher with a book.
  • Subject: Is he really a philosopher? Which philosopher is he? In the collection of twenty “heads,” only two have been identified as actual philosophers: Diogenes and Pythagoras. It has been suggested that M&G’s may be Xenophon, a Greek historian and philosopher. It has also been suggested that these “philosophers” are merely studies in physiognomy, a so-called science of identifying the character of a person through an examination of facial structure or attributes such as the set of eyes or wrinkles. Such a science was familiar to Tiepolo whose sketches illustrated a manual on the topic.
  • Details: What or who are on the clasps and brooches so prevalent in the collection? Tiepolo used the motif on the clasps in other works not a part of this collection—Two Men in Oriental Costume (a large wall decoration) and the more elaborate scenes of the Scherzi di Fantasia. The cameo-like ornament adorns the turbans as well as the cloaks. Are they meant to identify the philosophers? Or simply beautiful Oriental embellishments?

All of these questions can be frustrating to art historians and viewers alike. But Keats would propose that they are an indication of good art, something beautiful that attracts further examination, pondering, and appreciation without final satisfaction. Good art pulls us out of ourselves and reminds us, like Horatio, that “there are more things in heaven and earth. . . than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Doubtless, this philosopher with a book would have agreed.

Karen Rowe Jones, M&G board member

Citation: Print, Portrait of a Man, Plate 6, from the series Raccolta Di Teste I; Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (Italian, 1727 – 1804); Italy; etching on white laid paper; 1931-67-106-2


Published 2021

Object of the Month: May 2021

The Brazen Serpent

Oil on canvas, 1790

Benjamin West, P.R.A.

American, active in England, 1738–1820

Roughly three years before the treaty ending the Revolutionary War, King George III commissioned Benjamin West to create a special series of paintings for the chapel at Windsor Castle. West, who had become one of the leading artists in England and Historical Painter to the King in 1772, considered this commission to be the “great work of [his] life.” The Progress of Revealed Religion would cover Biblical history from “commencement to completion.” To understand more about this royal commission, the artist, and M&G’s distinction of displaying the largest assembly of completed paintings from the series, read St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost.

West’s choices for the series’ subjects and organization were probably influenced by William Warburton, who wrote about the parallels between the Old and New Testaments and specifically how the Old Testament laid the foundation for the New Testament work of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. The artist chose and outlined his visual narratives for the chapel into four dispensations: creation and fall of man (pre-Mosaic law), the Israelite nation under Mosaic law, Christ’s life and dispensation of grace, and the last judgment.

M&G’s The Brazen Serpent fits within the dispensation focused on the Israelite nation under Mosaic law. The life of Moses is remarkable from birth to death. God called him to lead the enslaved Hebrew nation out of Egypt to Canaan, the Promised Land. From the outset, the journey was challenging. As the Hebrews arrived at the Red Sea, their Egyptian masters followed them, and the situation looked dire. The overwhelmed children of Israel responded by crying, blaming God and Moses, and complaining about their circumstances—a cycle of responses that the infant nation would repeat. God miraculously parted the waters into two heaps while the large caravan crossed on dry land to the other side. As the Egyptians started through the waters, God closed the path with the Red Sea crashing down and destroying them instead—the first of His many provisions and blessings. God’s presence and leading were visible with a pillar of clouds by day and fire by night. He supplied fresh water, manna (bread of heaven), victory over enemies, clothing and shoes that didn’t wear out. On Mt. Sinai, God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses for the help of Israel’s development as a distinctive nation protected by God. God outlined unique worship features and a sanctuary designed for praise, prayer, and offerings to Jehovah alone. He chose this people and made a special covenant with them.

Even with these physical and spiritual blessings, the Israelites griped about the food (wishing for leeks and onions of Egypt, meat, etc.), their thirst for water, Moses’ leadership, fear of the “giants” in the land God promised them. Their recurring lack of gratitude led to judgment, including the curse to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, until the complaining generation (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb) had all died. Only their children would enter the land of promise. Following a victory over the Canaanites as they neared the border of the Promised Land, once again “the people spoke against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.’ So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:4-9).

As on previous occasions, the people begged Moses to pray to God for their forgiveness, admitting they had sinned against the Lord and him. Moses prayed, and the Lord commanded him to “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live. So, Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole.” Instead of taking away the punishment, God mercifully provided a remedy in the form of a brass serpent. Whoever turned to view the brazen serpent was healed. Individuals could make their choice: they could look and live or choose death.

Helmut van Erffa and Alan Staley consider The Brazen Serpent to be “one of the most successful full-scale paintings for the chapel.” In West’s powerful visual narrative, he included snakes everywhere—biting and coiling themselves around the people, and even some in the air (upper left). West owned a collection of Renaissance and Baroque engravings, which he often referenced for inspiration. The drama of this work borrows from both Peter Paul Rubens’ Brazen Serpent and the famous sculpture from antiquity of Laocoön and his sons (figure group at the lower left of the painting). However, the figure of Moses reflects the muscular strength and monumentality of Michelangelo’s style.

In the distance between Moses’ feet, the camp tents are barely visible, but filling the foreground (and our ears’ imagination) are a variety of emotional responses expressed by these suffering people. Compassionate, fearful mothers carry their children to view the bronze serpent. Some men are praying or pointing the way for others to look and be healed. Others are in the stages of recovery, while a few mourn over those who have died. West’s composition leads the eyes upward to the light breaking from heaven and silhouetting the figure of Moses—the brightest part of the painting, where there is hope, the cure.

Centuries after the great patriarch’s death, Nicodemus, a knowledgeable teacher of the Jewish Sanhedrin, came to Jesus by night for answers. To illustrate how one can enter God’s kingdom, Christ explained His coming crucifixion and hope of salvation, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).

Erin R. Jones, Executive Director


Published 2021

Object of the Month: September 2020

St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost

Oil on canvas, signed and dated 1785

Benjamin West, P.R.A.

American, active in England, 1738–1820

Benjamin West was born the youngest of ten children to Quakers John and Sarah West on October 10, 1738 in the township of Springfield, Pennsylvania. At an early age, he showed remarkable artistic talent by painting likenesses of his family. True or not, charming anecdotes have been passed down that the Indians instructed him in preparing colors and that Benjamin made his first paintbrush by plucking tail and back hairs from Gremalkin, the family cat.

At nine, he met a British portraitist, William Williams, who genuinely inspired the young boy. He lent West two books about painting, which developed in him an enduring interest in both the great historians who recorded the stories of the noble and virtuous and the great master painters who depicted the lofty scenes of Scripture and the past.

West continued to paint portraits and at age 18, following his mother’s death, he moved to Philadelphia to live with his married sister. There, he benefited from the mentoring of Rev. William Smith, a respected scholar, minister, and intellectual. Smith found a way for West (age 22, armed with letters of introduction) to travel to Rome, where the great artists studied. West was the first American artist to travel to Italy, where he not only studied and copied the Old Masters and sculpture of Greek and Roman antiquity, but he befriended the contemporary Neoclassical painters including Anton Raphael Mengs and Pompeo Batoni.

In 1763, West moved to England and joined the Society of Artists, where he exhibited and earned the nickname, “the American Raphael”—it was the beginning of a successful career and a lifetime of commissions. Along with Sir Joshua Reynolds and other artists, the king made West a charter member of the Royal Academy.

Defying precedent, West pursued a controversial approach in 1770 for the first exhibition of the Royal Academy by painting The Death of General Wolfe. The scene portrayed a moment of recent history—the heroic death of a great general during Britain’s Seven Years War with France in North America. Rather than following the day’s expectation of clothing the characters in robes of antiquity, West painted the men wearing modern dress. It was a milestone in English and American art, and it established his artistic reputation.

West became England’s leading Neoclassical painter and historical painter to King George III. Following Reynolds’ death, West was made the 2nd president of the Royal Academy and the longest serving. West’s success and recognition attracted art students from America. He gave them opportunities to study and assist on commissions in his studio, where he trained three generations of American artists, including Charles Wilson Peale and Gilbert Stuart. As the “Father of American Painting,” he helped establish a sophisticated American style and provided a foundation for the growth of the arts in America during the Federal period.

In 1780, King George commissioned West to decorate a proposed chapel at Windsor Castle “for the purpose of displaying a pictorial illustration” of subjects from the Bible, “which Christians of all denominations, might contemplate without offense to their tenets.” West developed multiple plans for the chapel over a 20-year period, so it is difficult to know the total paintings he intended to complete. According to records from 1801, his concept for the Chapel of the History of Revealed Religion contained approximately 35 paintings featuring the Scriptural events when God specifically revealed Himself to man.

M&G’s St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost is one of the paintings originally planned for the king’s chapel. The festival of Pentecost brought many visitors from around the known world to Jerusalem. The disciples were gathered together on the feast day when suddenly the sound of a rushing wind filled the house. Flames of fire appeared above their heads, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages. Others at the feast thought the disciples were drunk, but Peter powerfully preached to the assembled crowd, who understood what he spoke in their own language. He explained to them that the miracle they were observing was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy and that Jesus came to save them from their sins, died, and was resurrected on the third day. Three thousand people believed on Jesus Christ that day.

West beautifully and subtly displays this New Testament event from Acts 2, by representing the presence of the Holy Spirit with a smoky quality and the slightest hint of faintly glowing flames above Peter’s head and John’s (behind Peter and wearing green and red). The crowd scene is an observer’s study in reading people. Each person responds differently as they intently consider the apostle’s words. One of West’s special details is the mother with her two young children, which references his skill as a portraitist.

Of course, many factors prevented the chapel and commission from being finished including the American and French Revolutions and the king’s ongoing health struggles. However, West completed 18 large paintings for the chapel and left one unfinished. Of those 18 finished works, 5 are now lost, which leaves 13 paintings with known locations. Six can be found in the collections at the National Gallery in DC, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, the Palace of Westminster in London, the Tate Gallery, Margram Castle in Neath, and St. Martin’s Church in Wales. Remarkably, M&G displays the remaining 7 paintings all together in the War Memorial Chapel on the campus of Bob Jones University.

These are no ordinary pictures, and they represent the creative talent and skill of the first, significant American artist. Art historian Alfred Scharf has honored these works as “the most outstanding series of religious paintings in 18th-century England.”

Erin R. Jones, Executive Director


Published in 2020

Object of the Month: May 2020

The Wedding Feast at Cana

Oil on canvas

Giovanni Domenico Piastrini

Roman, 1678-1740

This magnificent 18th-century Roman work may be a rare one by Giovanni Domenico Piastrini and betrays a strong connection to his teacher Benedetto Luti. Piastrini was arguably his best pupil, though very little survives to document his life or oeuvre. Some experts believe that certain passages (for example, the handling of the male figure at the left forefront of the table, the woman at the far right of the table, and the brushwork in the kneeling figure at the extreme right) are painted as if by Luti himself. Other portions, such as the bride and groom, betray a strong connection to the early work of Luti’s other student, Placido Constanzi. While Piastrini’s style is clearly dependent on that of his teacher and his fellow student, other elements of the painting are clearly of his own derivation. 

Though so little is definitively known about the painting, the one surety is the subject. Piastrini illustrates the first of Jesus Christ’s miracles (though not a public one) at the wedding feast of a friend of the family. John’s Gospel (2:1-11) clearly says that Mary was present, and that Jesus and His disciples were invited. The distinction is subtle, but important to the story. 

Mary seems to be especially close to the hosts, close enough to be concerned that the wine was gone, unlike a mere guest. So Mary goes to her Son with only a statement of the need; she sees no reason to spell out her request. She knows her son. Jesus’ calling His mother, “Woman,” may seem cold, but He addresses her the same way from the cross as He directs John to care for her, a tender act under horrific conditions.  The question “What have I to do with thee?” may possibly be a rebuke, but only a very gentle one considering that He resolves her concern. He was here on earth to show that He was the Messiah, not to solve a banquet shortage. However, His relationship with His mother is such that she has utmost confidence in His compassion, even in situations of social crisis. Trustingly, she issues instruction to the servants, “Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it” (v. 5). Again, only a close friend would give another’s servants an order, especially of such an open-ended nature. Jesus may not have an obligation to solve the problem, but Mary apparently feels a responsibility to save her friends from embarrassment. And Jesus is touched with compassion for her.

Piastrini places Mary next to an older woman, probably the mother of the groom who is clearly enthralled with his bride. (And, she is apparently appreciative of her wedding necklace!) Mary’s eyes are downcast submissively (remember her submissive answer to Gabriel’s surprising news?), and her hands are in the classic pose of prayer. Perhaps Piastrini reflects the Catholic tradition of Mary as the intercessor to Christ for those on earth. She has certainly interceded for the hosts, but not in any way remotely connected to eternal salvation. It is doubtful that the artist’s rendering depicts the moment she asks her Son for help since the servants are posed to pour out the water-into-wine for the governor of the feast, according to Christ’s instruction. 

The governor of the feast (in the green) is clearly discussing the matter of the empty wine vessel (made of fine silver to show the importance of the occasion). The servant on the left side reassures him that there is more wine ready to serve. No one else seems to be concerned, not even Mary—now.  Presumably the stone water jars which now hold wine are too heavy to pour from, so the servant in the right foreground uses a smaller silver vessel to pour the beverage into the larger silver urn from which the serving pitcher can be filled. 

John carefully relates that no one knows where the latest—and best—wine has come from. Except the servants. Christ has not revealed Himself to the general public for His “hour had not yet come.” But He did reveal Himself to the common man, as He always did in His ministry, finding in them a willingness to believe in His deity that the religious leaders of the day did not. Piastrini composes his work so that the common man and the miracle itself are in the foreground of the painting and thus, in the forefront of the viewer’s mind. Christ’s upraised hand in the iconic pose of blessing shows He not only blesses the feast with His provision, but also the marriage with His presence. 

Whether by a single artist or as a collaboration, The Wedding Feast at Cana celebrates the early 18th-century Roman style. The brilliant coloration of fabrics, the monumental size (almost 6×12 feet!), the gestured poses of multiple figures, and the classical architecture serving as backdrop for the staged event all contribute to a masterful late Roman interpretation of this biblical banquet scene. 

Karen Rowe Jones, M&G board member


Published in 2020

Object of the Month: August 2016

Justice and Temperance Overcoming Vice

Prudence and Fortitude Overcoming Evil

Oil on canvas

Sebastiano Conca

Roman, 1680–1764

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

Although born in Gaeta, Italy in 1680, Sebastiano Conca received his early training in Naples as a student of Francesco Solimena. Conca’s teacher followed the style of his great Neapolitan predecessor, Luca Giordano as well as Giovanni Lanfranco and Mattia Preti, all of whom are represented in M&G’s collection.

Sebastiano eventually moved to Rome (along with his brother Giovanni) in 1706 to begin his own practice. He remained in Rome for about 45 years rising in popularity and becoming one of the most sought after artists of his day. Some of his most notable patrons included Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, various members of the royal families of Spain, Portugal, and Poland, and even Pope Clement XI himself. He returned to Naples, his artistic roots, around 1752 where he remained the rest of his career. Considered his best work, the Coronation of St. Cecilia adorns the ceiling of the nave of the Basilica of St. Cecilia in Rome.

His style evolved from the Giordanesque influence of his early teacher, Solimena, to Baroque classicism and eventually the Rococo for his smaller works. He was not only an artist, but he was also twice the director of the Accademia di San Luca, a teacher (one of his most notable students being Pompeo Batoni), and a published author.

This pair of small, cabinet paintings appear to derive from four, large wall paintings Conca created for the Palazzo Lomellini-Balbi-Lamba-Doria in Genoa. While the four large works each feature an individual Virtue, these smaller pendants present them in pairs. Richard P. Townsend notes, “the painter’s combinations are particularly appropriate: prudence should always inform fortitude and justice should be dispensed with temperance.”

The four Cardinal Virtues are the foundation on which all others rest: Justice, Temperance, Prudence, and Fortitude. Artists and authors alike portray these virtues as women. Conca’s personification of the four Cardinal Virtues appears to be loosely based on Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, which was the primary resource for many artists active in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries looking to personify virtue and vice.

Here Conca draws symbols from three different types of justice described in Ripa’s book. Justice sits on the left with her symbolic scales used to weigh and measure the two sides of a court case. The crown on her head and sword in her hand show her power and authority to execute the verdict.  Resting beneath her lies the fasces (a group of wooden rods bundled together with an axe-blade protruding), the emblem of authority for magistrates in ancient Rome.

To the right, Temperance reclines holding a bridle by which she reigns in affections and passions with moderation and self-control. Clutched in the opposite hand, she holds a palm frond, a sign of victory in Roman culture. She is often portrayed tempering wine with water a task carried out by an angel in this work.

Crushed between them lies Vice, an immoral behavior or negative character trait. Together Justice and Temperance overcome Vice, depicted here by hiding her true face with a mask of deceit.


Aristotle describes prudence as “right reason applied to practice.” Conca’s Prudence features two characteristic attributes: a mirror and serpent. A mirror allows for self-examination from multiple angles. It reveals the truth about oneself. The serpent alludes to Matthew 10:16 where Christ tells the disciples to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

Fortitude, “strength of mind which enables one to bear adversity with courage,” sits beside Prudence, clothed in armor and holding a shield by which she is prepared to battle Evil. Fortitude is often portrayed near or leaning on a column which lends her support (in reference to the Biblical Samson). Her spear shows her “superiority gained by strength,” and the lion resting by her side expresses strength and courage.

An angel holds Evil bound with a chain at their feet showing the triumph of Prudence and Fortitude over Evil.


Rebekah Cobb, Guest Relations Manager


Published in 2016

Object of the Month: April 2015

Christ in the House of the Pharisee 

Oil on canvas

Pierre Hubert Subleyras

French, active in Italy, 1699–1749

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

As one of the eighteenth-century’s foremost French painters of portraits and religious works, Pierre Hubert Subleyras is considered a remarkable artist and rarely seen in American collections.

Pierre was introduced to the craft from his artist father, Matthieu Subleyras, and by age seventeen was signing his own works.  In 1717, he joined the workshop of Antoine Rivalz, a history painter in Toulouse a few days journey west of his hometown, Saint-Gilles-du-Gard.  Subleyras excelled under Rivalz’s training even earning the responsibility of executing his teacher’s designs and achieving an independent commission to decorate the ceiling of the chapel of the Pénitents Blancs in Toulouse, France.

At age 27, Subleyras moved to Paris, where he was awarded the Prix de Rome for his Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Musée des Beaux Arts, Nimes). This scholarship program initiated by King Louis XIV was given to the most promising French artists (painters, sculptors and architects) to study in Rome for a three to five year period.

Pierre left for Rome in 1728 to begin studies in the fall at the Académie de France, a branch of the Paris Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture where “pensioners” or students studied anatomy, life drawing, and classical antiquity as well as absorbed and participated in Rome’s thriving contemporary art scene. Subleyras stayed seven years—somewhat longer than the more standard 4-year term.

At the end of his Académie training in 1735 at age 36, he became engaged to the miniaturist and respected artist in her own right, Maria Felice Tibaldi; the two artists married four years later, which helped to anchor the Frenchman in Rome’s society, where he couldn’t be lured away from the city even by a deathbed request from his former teacher Rivalz or appealing mediations with the Saxon Court in Dresden nor the Spanish Court in Madrid.

Subleyras’ artistic reputation was earned primarily through religious commissions beginning with Roman churches and moving to religious orders, but he was also highly regarded and widely recognized for his portraits.  Through his intellect and skilled work he became a central figure in the artistic and intellectual circles of Rome as evidenced by his varied commissions, election in 1743 to membership of the Accademia di San Luca, and acceptance into the Accademia dell’ Arcadia, an eighteenth-century Italian literary society.

His best known works include a formal portrait of Prince Frederick Christian of Saxony, portraits of Pope Benedict XIV (which were repeatedly reproduced), the Mass of St. Basil, and the monumental Supper in the House of Simon (nearly 7’x23’) commissioned by the Canons Regular of the Lateran for the refectory of their monastery of Santa Maria Nuova at Asti, Piedmont (and currently resides in the Louvre).

Since Subleyras’ workshop practice is yet uncertain, with questions about his making multiple, smaller copies of his large-scale masterpieces, it’s difficult to ascertain his reasons for repeating these works as well as if he or someone else, like his wife, participated in creating the variations.  The Louvre painting is one of a number of his own works that he made his own prints and an engraving; like this present painting at M&G, variations also exist in the Pinacoteca Capitolina Museum in Rome, Boston College Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Periodically, Christ in the House of the Pharisee is featured in the annual Living Gallery, an Upstate Easter program. The original painting in M&G’s Collection, is relatively small—about 2½’x4’. However, the life-size Living Gallery reproduction, scaled for live models, is approximately 12’ high by 25’ wide—closer to the dimensions of the Louvre’s version. The life-size stage tableau was created by local artist, Kevin Isgett, who relates his experience with Subleyras’ work:

“There is a baroque sense of overabundance—a sense of frenetic activity, servants running to and fro, guests interacting, and (almost lost in the chaos) the key part of the narrative: the woman anointing Christ’s feet.  In analyzing the work, however, I wonder if that is not part of what Subleyras is trying to communicate. Unlike the disciples at the Last Supper who knew and loved Christ as the Messiah, the Pharisees viewed Him as a mere dinner guest. Thus, losing sight of Him amidst elegantly dressed characters and lavish gold and silver plates may be the most accurate interpretation of the scene.”

Subleyras died at a young 50 years, supposedly from overwork. Well-loved and well-known during his lifetime, he spent his entire career in Rome. He is not as familiar as his French contemporaries, but is still highly regarded today for his painterly style and refined, artistic sensibility.

Erin R. Jones, Executive Director


Published in 2015

Object of the Month: March 2015

Monks before a Fireplace 

Oil on canvas

Alessandro Magnasco, called Il Lissandrino

Genoese, 1667–1749

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

No matter the era or the medium, it seems you can always count on artists to challenge the status quo.

Alessandro Magnasco was born in Genoa, northern Italy, in 1667. His father Stefano was a minor artist who died when Magnasco was only five years old. Around the age of ten, Magnasco was sent to Milan to live under the care of a patron while he learned commerce. However, his interests lay along the same lines as his father’s, and before long he had convinced his patron to sponsor an apprenticeship for him with the renowned Mannerist painter, Filippo Abbiati, of Milan. By 1690, Magnasco had mastered his craft and had established himself as a portraitist. This phase of his career lasted only a brief time before he transitioned into his distinguished, celebrated style.

Magnasco’s style is something of an anomaly, even for the eclectic movement that is the Baroque. His is a nervous, loose brushwork that conveys fluid movement and hazy figures and settings. Murky tones pervade his paintings, with the occasional pockets of stark light and strong color. Arguably his most interesting characteristic is his choice of unusual subject matter.

In a time largely characterized by paintings of religious subject matter, Magnasco chose instead to focus on the common man, such as beggars and gypsies, and on some of the more obscure facets of contemporary life, such as shadowy synagogue interiors and scenes of monastic life. Interestingly, Magnasco also often chose to portray scenes charged with social commentary, going even so far as to treat highly controversial subjects—in his day as well as our own—as in his painting of an Inquisition torture scene. Magnasco seemed captivated by the mysterious, socially questionable, and the bizarre.

Monks before a Fireplace is characteristic of Magnasco’s mature style. His elongated figures are reminiscent of the mannerist El Greco. At the same time, his monochromatic palate and mysterious, almost ghoulish, atmosphere heralds the coming of nineteenth-century realist Francisco Goya. Here, Magnasco once again presents the common man in his paintings—humble monks instead of otherworldly saints. His figures possess a uniformity, functioning almost as a nameless, faceless unit. But on closer examination, the figures are strikingly distinct, suggesting the idiosyncrasies of the individuals within the group including the monk perusing his crinkled manuscript and the man warming his feet at the fire while toying with the resident cat. He captures a snapshot of a quiet moment in contemporary monastic life.

Indeed, Magnasco’s very essence seems almost out of place in his world, a nod to modernism from the late baroque era.

Katharine Golighty, former Docent & Guest Services Attendant


Published in 2015