On March 23, the Cincinnati Art Museum will open special feature “Cagnacci: Painting Beauty and Death,” bringing together four Italian Baroque paintings for the first time. Peter Bell, Cincinnati Art Museum Associate Curator of European Paintings, Sculptures and Drawings, provides an early look at the feature.
Guido Cagnacci was one of the most inventive and accomplished painters of seventeenth-century Italy.Cincinnati Art Museum’s upcoming special feature “Painting Beauty and Death” will introduce Cagnaccito Cincinnati with three of his paintings loaned to the museum, joined by one by Bernardo Strozzi from the museum’s collection. Whether depicting, for example, the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra with the snake that kills her, or the Israelite shepherd David holding the head of Goliath, each painting presents a life-sized single figure with minimal props—a sword here, a chair there—and no recognizable setting.
The compression of space in the composition is one of the great accomplishments of seventeenth-century painters. Think Caravaggio’s card players or musicians: to recreate those famous scenes, the subjects would need to be piled on top of each other rather than seated in a group or standing around a table, and yet the vitality and realism of the painted forms are so compelling that we rarely question how the space is described.
Similarly, Cagnacci pushed his compositions to the front of the “picture plane” in these single-figure paintings. Cleopatra and David are so close to us that their legs are cut off by the frame. The dark, undifferentiated backgrounds and dramatic side lighting accentuate the three-dimensionality of their bodies while seemingly pushing the figures even more out of the painting and into our space.
One of Cagnacci’s most enduring and captivatingqualities is the psychological depth of his subjects. Here he circumvents the violence and brutality of David’s and Cleopatra’s defining actions, representing them instead in internal struggle to grasp the effects of those actions. He portrays neither David as triumphant nor Cleopatra as defeated. While Cagnacci painted bodies that could not be closer to us, their minds—their spirits—could not be further away.
“Cagnacci: Painting Beauty and Death” will be on view in the Sarah M. and Vance Waddell Gallery (G125) March 23–July 22, 2018. Admission is free. To learn more, please visit www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org/cagnacci.