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A Baroque Painting of Saint Catherine

Author(s): Margaretta Salinger

Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 1, No. 10 (Jun., 1943), pp.
Published by: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Accessed: 26/12/2013 22:20

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Junior Research Fellow, Department of Paintings

Playwrights have more than once managed, by in an ecstasy of adoration, her lovely eyes not
means of situations and references, to build a closed, however, in a mystic trance but open
piece about a central character who never ap- and directed toward some very moving and
pears. It is no dramatic device, but the actual immediate vision. It is characteristic of the
rarity of works by Caravaggio, which has lim- religious painting of the baroque period-
ited the representation of him to just such a which is at the same time the Counter Refor-
shadowy outline in the Muscum's galleries of mation period-to reject circumstantial repre-
Italian paintings. Until a happy chance brings sentations of saints with all the paraphernalia
on the market a work with some claims to au- of their miracles and martyrdomls so dear to
thenticity Caravaggio will be suggested only- renaissance artists. The baroque painter con-
by his Brescian forerunner Savoldo, by Fetti centrated all his pictorial powers rather on the
and Strozzi, who felt his influence, and by tle delineation of a state of mind or soul, often
painters of Naples, whose works were deeply omitting those attributes which are the mate-
marked by his sojourn in that city in 16(o7. rial for the study of iconography and depend-
Half a dozen years ago this group of Neapoli- ing on his audience's ability to identify his
tan Caravaggisti found representation in the subjects by what is known of their spiritual
Museum through the purchase of the large experiences. The more intense and emotional
and sombrely impressive Christ and the those experiences were, the dearer to the
Woman of Samaria by Caracciolo. And now baroque artist; and saints like Teresa and the
the outline is further filled in by a recent pur- Magdalen and Jerome, whose days were spent
chase which brings yet another example by a in prayer and rapture, were more likely to
Neapolitan follower, reflecting a quite differ- find favor than such practical good people as
ent facet in Caravaggio's complexity. Elizabeth of Hungary and Dorothy and Zeno-
The new painting, Saint Catherine of Alex- bius, whose recorded lives are full of saying
andria by the elegant and graceful Bernardo and doing.
Cavallino, came from the collection of Ales- Saint Catherine of Alexandria was not a
sandro Laliccia, a Neapolitan lawyer, who had specifically baroque saint, but her legend,
it at least as early as 1921, when it was pub- which is one of the Church's oldest and a fa-
lished by both Aldo de Rinaldis and Ettore vorite of all times, offered enough mystical
Sestieri. Its history before that time is un- material to please Cavallino and his contempo-
known. Because the popularity of baroque raries. He shows her, to be sure, crowned, her
painting is so recent, old inventories and col- left hand holding a delicate palm of martyr-
lectors' lists are usually innocent of even the dom and resting on the colossal wooden wheel
names of baroque painters, and it is not often with strong metal rim and ugly hooked spike
possible to trace their works even to the be- which her torturers used in a futile effort to
ginning of this century. More recently our break her resolve. The sword, which in Saint
Saint Catherine belonged to the late Samuel Catherine's case as in so many others, was re-
Untermyer and was sold with his collection sorted to when all other means proved in-
in 1940. effectual, is shown at the left, resting against a
The picture is a three-quarter length of the table or pedestal on which lie two parchment-
beautiful, learned Alexandrian princess, rapt bound books-the source of the learning with


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Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Bernardo Cavallino (1622-1654).

Recently acquired by the Muselum

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which she confounded Maxentius's council of Carracci. Concerning Cavallino's relation to
scholars. But these attributes are passive and Guido, we have an interesting note in De
incidental, contributing more to the composi- Dominici's Life which might even apply to
tion and decor than to the interpretation of our picture. Cavallino, doing some paintings
the saint. For this, Cavallino has relied upon for Andrea Vaccaro, had copied certain half-
the attitude of rapture, the hand upon the lengths by Guido Reni that belonged to the
panting breast, and the thrown-back, glorious- Prince di Conca, among them some Virgin
ly auburn head. When one looks at the fine- Saints, and wanted to do a number of similar
ness and sheen of the rich hair that is so half-lengths of his own, imitating, we are told,
typical of Cavallino, at the sweet mouth with "that admirable master's fine turning of the
parted coral lips and dainty teeth, the full and eyes." Four of these half-lengths of Virgin
rounded white throat, and the pure drawing Saints by Cavallino were owned by Gennaro
of the eyes, it is hard to understand why the Marotta and were later, in the year 1722,
painter's eighteenth-century biographer, De bought by the Cavaliere Giovanni Sciarpin to
Dominici, complained of the women in his be sent to England. Whether or not our paint-
paintings. He observed that for one thing only ing of Saint Catherine is one of these tributes
could the artist be taken to task by a severe of Cavallino to Guido Reni, it gives us at least
critic: he did not endow his ladies with that a good idea of what they looked like.
beauty of countenance that gives the idea of It is difficult to know where to place our
perfection. Perhaps the face of Saint Cath- picture in time, for the entire chronology of
crine is a little fuller than contemporary taste Cavallino's work rests on one painting, the
desired and the fine brows lack the heavy defi- Saint Cecilia in the Wenner collection in
nition of those of Neapolitan beauties, but it Naples, which is signed and dated 1645. The
is the youthful, ingenuous charm of the little large output of his very short life-from 1622
saint, contrasted with the strong lines of archi- to 1654-must be grouped about this one sure
tecture and the grand sweep of the drapery, point. The Saint Cecilia in the Wenner col-
that constitutes the appeal of our picture. lection and a closely related version in the
'I'he comiposition is extraordinarily interest- National Museum in Naples are extremely ac-
ing and complicated. In the narrow space be- complished works of great impressiveness. But
tween the great pedestal and column at the compared with these paintings in Naples, our
riglit and the table at the left, the figure of Saint Catherine has a breadth and sweep that
Saint Catherine moves backward obliquely are surely indications of increased power, and
into the shadow. The wheel, which shuts off it is not difficult to agree with Sestieri, who
the foreground, is not parallel to the picture dates our painting some time after 1645.
plane but set at an angle. Above the head of Of Cavallino's early life and training we
the girl, the gloomy background is rendered have only the anecdotal Neapolitan account
draimatic by a Caravaggesque device, a shaft of Bernardo De Dominici, on whom, in the
of light cutting diagonally across the picture, dearth of other evidence, even modern critics
a purely arbitrary lighting scheme that rarely must depend. He sets out along the usual
fails in its effect. lines, giving the most obvious explanations
As a matter of fact the elements in this pic- for the influences observable in the painter's
ture derived from Caravaggio are in the nature works. There is the thwarting parent, who
of a comimon inheritance, whereas those taken urges his son to apply himself to book learn-
from the Bolognese and from Guido Reni in ing and to leave bagatelles aside-and there
particular are more or less concrete and spe- is the schoolmaster, a frustrated would-be
cific-almost a borrowing. The female type painter, who lends the boy some drawings
with soft, smooth young face is the very same by Agostino Carracci. A new note is struck
type found in many of Guido's pictures, com- when the angry father, feeling himself cheated,
ing ultimately from Guido's masters, the drags the "pedant" into court, and the judge,


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demanding to see the boy's drawings, consults some germs of truth lie buried in their enter-
his friend, the painter Stanzione, who then be- taining fiction. And the accounts of how
comes Cavallino's first master. Through Stan- Cavallino had looked at the painting of Ar-
zione Cavallino came to know Andrea Vac- temisia Gentileschi, who stayed in Naples
caro, who, we are expressly told, was not his from 1630 to 1637, had copied a Venus by
master, but a patron and friend. It was evi- Titian, and had rushed with the other Nea-
dently a common practice to employ indigent politan painters to admire a work of Rubens,
young painters to produce in quantity and for do serve to remind us that in the seventeenth
a pittance works that were sold and widely ex- century there was good painting of all na-
ported, sometimes under the names of famous tionalities to be seen in Naples and that look-
painters. Cavallino was exploited in this way ing at it and learning from it was no mere
for some time until Vaccaro, deploring the eclecticism but good practice and good sense.
abuse of his ability, had one of his paintings That Cavallino drew from many sources is
publicly exhibited. In most of his works Ca- evident from his paintings; it is equally evi-
vallino, prudently obeying Vaccaro's counsel, dent that he assimilated what he drew and
clung to the painting of small figures, thus gave to it a distinction all his own. Indeed,
avoiding the mistake made, according to De though the language is generous, we cannot
Dominici, by Salvator Rosa, "who ... believed on the whole disagree with De Dominici's con-
he was better at heroic, imposing subjects than clusion that Cavallino arrived finally at the
in the little figures of soldiers, mariners, and formation of an excellent manner, which, ac-
common people, in which he truly surpassed companied by a grace that was naturally his,
all others." rendered his works complete in every aspect
Even if such biographies are unreliable, of art.


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