The Illusion of the American Frontier
From 03 November 2015 to 07 February 2016
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This large-format canvas is a superb example of Italian Baroque painting. In this strongly narrative scene, Giordano creates enormous tension through the pyramidal arrangement of the figures, culminating in the child hanging upside down, held by the ankle. The realistic treatment of the faces is reminiscent of the work of the Spanish painter Ribera, under whom Giordano studied as a young man. At the same time, the play of light and shadow recalls Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro, imitated by the contemporary Neapolitan school. Luca Giordano worked for several years in Spain, where he produced a number of frescoes; the most outstanding of those surviving in Madrid is the dome of the Casón del Buen Retiro.
Since at least the second half of the 18th century, this great painting was hanging in the palace of the lawyer Vecchia in Vicenza, where it was admired firstly by Cochin (1758) and later by Jean Baptiste Claude Richard, Abbot of Saint-Non (June 1761) who mentions it in the diary he kept during his trip in Italy with Fragonard. The original manuscript of this diary was broken up and disperse but we can read Saint-Non's entry in the edition recently edited by Pierre Rosenberg (1986).
The Thyssen-Bornemisza canvas was hung in the Palazzo Vecchia with three other works by Giordano of almost identical format, each recorded by these French travellers and each still in existence. A pair of canvases (each of about 250 x 330 cm) representing The Massacre of the Innocents and The Expulsion of the Money Changers respectively were formerly in the Venetian church of San Aponal, which they probably reached after 1851, the year of its re-consecration, but on which Venetian sources are entirely silent regarding earlier provenance. They are currently in storage in the Diocesan Museum in Venice. The last painting of the group is a Rape of the Sabines (257.2 x 314.6 cm), now with Marco Grassi in New York, having been included in the American edition of Painting in Naples 1606-1705. From Caravaggio to Giordano held in Washington, D.C., in 1983 and exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from that date until 1991. Both the Massacre of the Innocents and the Rape of the Sabines had the honour of being drawn by Fragonard who accompanied Saint-Non on his trip in Italy. Today, both of Fragonard's sketches of these two paintings are in the Norton Simon Foundation in Pasadena. Granting the objectivity of Saint-Non's judgement when he suggested of the Vecchia collection that, "one must pay particular attention to the four Luca Giordanos of the greatest beauty" of which he then remarks a little later that they are, "are without a doubt among the most beautiful things Giordano ever made", it cannot be assumed that the presence of four pictures of comparable format in a single collection means -as might appear logical- that they were painted at the same time. Stylistic differences are most evident between the present The Judgement of Solomon and the rest of the series. The Judgement may be even earlier than the date of 1673-1674 suggested by Ferrari / Scavizzi, and one cannot doubt that at least ten years separate its creation from that of the other pictures, which are comparable to the style of Giordano's work for the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence. This, in turn, would bring forward their place in his chronology to at least the mid-1680s. To be persuaded of the partial uniformity of style between these pictures and the Florentine frescoes, it may prove useful (quite apart from the neo-Cortonian vein which pervades both the frescoes and the North American canvas that dominates Giordano's work post-1670) to superimpose the frescoed portion with the Rape of Proserpine over the central portion of the Rape of the Sabinesin the Grassi Collection in which the Roman soldier grasps his unwilling prey.
Other dates and other stylistic references are more credible for the Judgement of Solomon which, unlike the other three pictures, bears the unequivocal signs of the influence of Ribera, which long remained evident in Giordano's work (the Spanish artist was Giordano's most important early influence, as is well known). Sponza's opinion (1978), taken up by Ferrari-Scavizzi (1992), that the stylistic traits of the group of four pictures "concur with the time period" of the installation of the Santa Maria della Salute altarpieces in Venice may seem convincing (although even this dating still seems too early for the other three pictures, althoguh not for the Thyssen canvas). Nor does "the emergence of a certain persistent neo-Riberan manner" in the mid-1660s seem "here entirely diluted in the fluidity of a more updated pictorial language". On the contrary, it is both difficult and arbitrary to propose a date for The Judgement of Solomon that is any later than 1660-1665, particularly as many clues would lead one to move the date back in time to the first decade of Giordano's activity when he was little more than twenty.
A pressing list of divergences of type would support any defence of such an early dating of the painting, but for the sake of brevity let us consider only the clearest evidence of stylistic convergence, starting with the Blessing of Jacob of the Harrach Gallery at Schloss Rohrau, truly a sister-painting to the one shown here in light of the persistent influence of Ribera, not to mention the somatic similarities in the face of Rebecca and that of the old woman kneeling on the left of the Thyssen painting, or of those between the face of Isaac and that of the white-bearded man placed on the extreme right of The Judgement of Solomon. The insertion of armed men in the background under Solomon's outstretched arm recalls the equally Riberan insertion of soldiers on the right of the canvas of Esculapius and the Roman Messengers in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig, to which the episode of Circes and Picus serves as a companion piece, in which the face of Circes is closely related to that of Solomon. Useful elements of comparison, particularly in reference to the secondary figures, are also to be found in one of the four canvases at Sant'Evasio a Pedrengo near Bergamo, The Martyrdom of Saint Peter, in which the jailer on the left is of the same type as the ruffian holding the infant by the leg. Focusing our attention on single figures, it is undeniable that the Philosopher in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg with its Riberan folds of flaccid skin, is conceived according to the same standard of naturalism and genre as is the fleshier onlooker who is kneeling on the extreme left of The Judgement.
Overall, the date of this picture appears to conform, at least according to an analysis of its parts if not of the whole, to that of works closely linked to Ribera's influence of the early 1650s, to which we can add the Death of Seneca in the Bayerische Gemäldesammlungen in Munich, the Lot and his Daughters (in which the daughter on the left reminds the mother standing on the left in our picture), and the Saint Sebastian attended by the Pious Women (in which the woman kneeling also echoes the type of the standing Thyssen mother) in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden.
On the other hand, it is also true that solid stylistic connections can be derived from a comparison with the Carmelite Madonna in San Pietro in Castello in Venice (for example, the affinities between the child suspended in the air in The Judgement and the little angels placed at the feet of the Virgin), whose date-previously fixed by Arslan to the time of Giordano's first visit to Venice, around 1650-is more likely to be around 1665, the year of the artist's possible return trip there, bearing in mind that the first mention of this small altarpiece occurs only in Boschini's Ricche Minere, published in 1674. To be sure, Riberan echoes still recur in Giordano's work in the 1660s, but they do not persist indefinitely in his subsequent production. The Charity in the Uffizi, another work that is easily assimilated into the manner of The Judgement of Solomon, both because of the similarity of the woman to the standing mother and because of the close relation between the children in the Florentine canvas and the swinging child of the great Thyssen painting, can also be dated to the same years as the painting in San Pietro in Castello.
Thus, it is still difficult to decide between a very early dating for this picture, prior to 1655, and one set back by about a decade, a time equally characterised by persisting Riberan elements and perhaps more pertinent if one considers the larger and rounder physiognomies of the kneeling woman with her arms raised. It is doubtful, however, that one can place the painting any earlier than 1665. Moreover, it is impossible that the three other elements of the Palazzo Vecchia series could be dated so early. For these, a shift to the 1680s, nearer to works like the immense telero, or large canvas painting such as The Parting of the Waters in Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo (signed and dated 1681) seems the most sensible solution. Pilo himself (1994) stressed the chronological proximity of the two canvases previously in San Aponal to the Nativity of the Virgin in Santa Maria della Salute (in Venice), which Boschini stated in 1674 to be recently installed, suggesting that it was perhaps a work of that same year.
Another, later version of the Judgement of Solomon (circa 1680) is in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. Giordano repeated a mirror image of the rising movement of The Judgement of Solomon in his Death of Seneca in the Louvre (1684-1685).